Birds learn about nest building from watching others they know

Wednesday 23 March 2016


Birds can learn about what nest to build from watching others but ignore the “advice” of strangers, a new study by researchers at the University of St Andrews has found.

The study by scientists in the School of Biology involved the zebra finch, a small bird where the male builds a circular domed shaped nest in which the eggs are incubated and the chicks live until they are a few weeks old.

A male zebra finch that had never before built a nest was paired with a female zebra finch. The pair watched the male of another pair build a nest with either pink or orange string, colours that these birds would not normally use to build a nest.

The male that watched the other bird build a nest was then given a chance to build his first nest.

He copied the colour of nest material that was used by the demonstrator bird, but only if he knew that individual. Males that observed unfamiliar birds did not demonstrate that behaviour.

The experiment showed that birds will use public information to make important decisions about which materials to use to build their first nest, but only if they know the individual who provided the information.

Dr Lauren Guillette of the School of Biology who led the research said: “Despite the popularity of bird watching as a hobby and numerous scientific studies on bird behaviour we still know very little about how a bird knows what nest to build. Building a nest is a very important event in the life of a bird because they will lay their eggs and raise their young in there.

“They need to get it right or they will not reproduce. This study is the first to show that birds can learn about what nest to build from watching others. This is called ‘social learning’, and can save time and effort for first-time nest-builders because it allows them to capitalise on the success of others while also avoiding making their own mistakes. Perhaps surprisingly, the birds did not always use this ‘advice’, especially if it came from a stranger. In humans, learning from those we know is one way that cultural traditions are formed, from the tools we use to the clothes we wear or the music we listen to.”

‘Conformity in nest building: the role of familiarity’ by Lauren Guillette, Alice Scott and Susan Healy is published in the Royal Society journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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