Street smarts and city slime give urban birds advantages over their country cousins.
This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Christopher Intagliata. Got a minute?
While visiting Barbados, McGill University neurobiologist Jean-Nicolas Audet noticed that local bullfinches were accomplished thieves as well.
[Jean-Nicolas Audet:] “They were always trying to steal our food. And we can see those birds also entering in supermarkets, trying to steal food there.”
And that gave him an idea.
[Audet:] Since this bird species [is] able to solve amazing problems in cities, and they're also present in rural areas, we were wondering...
...Are the rural birds also good problem solvers, and they just don't take advantage of their abilities? Or are they fundamentally different?
So Audet and his McGill colleagues captured Barbados bullfinches, both in the island's towns and out in the countryside. They then administered the bird equivalent of personality and IQ tests: assessing traits like boldness and fear or timing how quickly the finches could open a puzzle box full of seeds.
And it turns out the city birds really could solve puzzles faster. They were bolder, too, except when it came to dealing with new objects—perhaps assuming, unlike their more naive country cousins, that new things can either mean reward…or danger. The study is in the journal Behavioral Ecology. [Jean-Nicolas Audet et al., The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization
The city birds bested their country counterparts in one other trait: They have more robust immune systems, possibly from scavenging food and water in dirty places. Which suggests that sometimes a city's dirt and grit could be the very thing that gives avian residents a wing up.
Thanks for the minute. For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Christopher Intagliata.
Executive Producer: Eliene Augenbraun
Producer: Leila Falls
Narrator and Writer: Christopher Intagliata
Audio Engineer: Steve Mirsky
Research Images: Jean-Nicolas Audet
Stock Images and Video: Getty, Askold Romanov/Getty, Nickiteev Konstantin/Getty