Social birds are more intrepid feeders


Recently published research from the University of Oxford has found that Great Tits that are more social are more inclined to explore new sources of food.

By feeding in groups, birds gain protection from predators and benefit from sharing information on feeding locations, but this social behaviour also means food sources will be in demand from different individuals, leading to competition for resources. Expanding their diets could be one way that birds reduce competition for specific foods.

Researchers have, for the first time, documented a relationship between individual birds' position in their social network with the chance that they will explore new sources of food.

The most social Great Tits took twice as much unfamiliar food as the birds with few social associations (paul davison).

The study looked at the foraging behaviour of 105 Great Tits at Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, during the winter. Each bird was fitted with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, enabling the scientists to gain new insights into their behaviour and status within the tits' social network in terms of how many associations they held and with whom.

Each Great Tit's tendency to use novel food sources was assessed by offering choices of familiar – ground peanuts – and new food (ground peanuts died red or green) at feeding stations in the wood. Over the course of 19 days, the team logged how often each bird took the unfamiliar food items in comparison to the regular food, finding that each bird's propensity to explore new options was significantly predicted by their social network position.

Although most birds tried the novel food during the trial, irrespective of sociability, the researchers found that birds with a greater number of social associations took a significantly greater proportion of the novel food, regardless of other factors such as an individual's age and sex, or the size of the flock. In fact, the most sociable birds took twice the proportion of novel food compared to less-connected individuals.

Dr Keith McMahon, from the Department of Biology at University of Oxford and lead researcher, said: "This indicates that the increased usage of the novel food by the more social birds was not due to them being generally more exploratory or brave, but rather that more social birds are more likely to use novel food as a way of expanding their diets to offset the costs of having more foraging associates."

The researchers suggest that further studies could look at how more social individuals may take in extra information about new food sources through their group members, increasing their confidence in exploring new food.

Dr Josh Firth, also from the Department of Biology at University of Oxford, said: "The findings suggest that highly social birds may alleviate the costs of competition for food by foraging more broadly and exploiting novel food sources, but future research could explore whether there are additional reasons which explain why more social individuals are more likely to tolerate new foods."



McMahon, K, Marples, N M, Spurgin, L G, Rowland, H M, Sheldon, B C, & Firth, J A. 2024. Social network centrality predicts dietary decisions in a wild bird population. iScience, 109581. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2024.109581

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