To feed, or not to feed: are we making birds lazy?

Posted on Thursday, June 6, 2019

A chickadee perched on a feeder.

To feed, or not to feed: that is the question.

Good news for bird lovers: they will be able to continue feeding birds without fearing of the impacts it could have on their behaviour.

According to a University of Ottawa study published in Animal Cognition, urbanization and the presence of feeders does not have a significant impact on black-capped chickadees feeding behaviour and memory. This is exactly the opposite of what researchers Megan Thompson, a master's student in biology, and Dr. Julie Morand-Ferron, her supervisor, assumed when they began their research.

Chickadee during the spatial memory test.

As chickadees cache their food to survive the winter, they believed that access to a reliable food source such as feeders would change their behaviour. According to them, chickadees living in urban areas, those with access to all this food, should be less dependent on their reserves and the associated spatial memory than those living in forests should. Why continue to store food if humans provide all the meals?

“More than 100 chickadees from the region have undergone spatial memory tests at the University of Ottawa aviaries before being returned to their habitat,” said Dr. Julie Morand-Ferron. “The birds first found food at one of the 60 caching sites on artificial trees. They would then leave the room, and when they came back 30 minutes later, all the sites were hidden by a small cotton ball. The birds must remember where the food was 30 minutes earlier - every time they pulled out a cotton ball in the wrong place, we considered it a spatial memory ‘error’.”

The conclusions were indeed surprising: urbanization and the presence of feeders in urban and suburban areas did not have a significant effect on food caching and the spatial memory of chickadees. These results suggest that although urbanization greatly affects the life and evolution of wild animals, chickadees may not be entirely dependent on humans and their feeders.

This research is one of the first studies in the world on the cognition (intelligence) of urban and non-urban individuals of the same species.


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