Video: City birds outsmart country birds

By Joshua Rapp Learn

Sparrows help themselves to a sandwich in Dupont Circle, D.C. @angela n.

Faced with a plethora of new resources, city birds have adapted in ways that make them smarter and more disease resistant than their country cousins, according to a new study.

“We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that, surprisingly, urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds,” says Jean-Nicolas Audet in a release. Audet is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology at Canada’s McGill University and lead author of a recent study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

Audet and his coauthors tested bullfinches captured around Barbados at the McGill’s Bellairs facility on the island. “The island of Barbados shows a strong range of human settlement, there are some very developed areas but also mostly left untouched, thus providing an excellent environment to study the effects of urbanization,” Audet said.

The researchers tested two groups of Barbados bullfinches (Loxigilla barbadensis) taken from urban and rural environments with associative learning and innovative problem-solving tasks like opening small drawers or popping off lids of containers to access food. They found that city birds were a little bolder and better at problem solving than rural birds, though they didn’t show higher color discrimination learning. City birds were also more afraid of unfamiliar objects or situations.

The urban birds also showed more immunity to disease.

“Since urban birds were better at problem-solving, we expected that there would be a trade-off and that the immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can’t be good at everything (in fact, both traits are costly),” Audet said. “It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all.”

The study is important as it shows some of the ways that wildlife is adapting to live with humans on an increasingly urbanized planet.

“Our study sheds light on the trade-offs acting on animals exposed to changing environments, particularly in the context of urbanization,” the authors wrote in the study’s abstract.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society.

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