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Town birds cleverer than their country cousins

The behaviour and brains of invasive bird species was investigated across a rural to urban environmental gradient. By studying different avian species across the world, EU-funded scientists were able to determine whether increased behavioural flexibility and enlarged brain size predisposes animals to survival on an increasingly urbanised planet.
Town birds cleverer than their country cousins
The EU-funded COBRA (Cognition and brains of ecological invaders) project used a collection of bird species as a model system to understand the role of behavioural flexibility in adaptation to urbanisation. Researchers also investigated the extent to which behavioural flexibility is associated with changes in brain anatomy.

Indian mynahs, European crows and small songbirds, such as house sparrows and great tits were studied. The birds were tested in the field along a rural to urban gradient with simple problem solving tasks such as removing a cork that was blocking access to food at a known feeder.

By examining several species in a number of geographical locations, using different measures of behavioural flexibility and describing associated brain changes researchers were able to support the hypothesis that increasing behavioural flexibility in increasingly urbanised environment is a general effect.

It was found that urban birds tend to be more exploratory and more risk-taking than rural birds. However, they did not show any differences in innovativeness, sociality or in their response to predators. These results, therefore, showed which factors make urban birds ‘special’ and provided hints for when to expect differences between species.

COBRA will benefit conservation efforts for declining species as well as the management of invasive species. It also highlighted the importance of comparative studies at different geographical locations through close collaboration between different researchers and their working groups.

Related information

Subjects

Life Sciences

Keywords

Invasive species, bird, rural, urban, behavioural flexibility, brain size, COBRA
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