Tendency to take risks and self-control are the two factors studied by biologists in titmice: to choose what to eat, these birds use their personalities
What distinguishes us from animals? Some might think opposable thumb, or a smile, or free will, or self-awareness. Some would say have that humans have a personality and animals don't: and they would have been correct, at least until recently. Now biologists have discovered that some birds have personalities of their own, and they use them for a specific purpose.
Two scholars from University College Cork, Ireland, analyzed the Great Tit, a very common bird in Europe and Asia, and in particular its feeding habits. And they found that these are influenced by the birds' personality, that is, how they relate to the outside world, and by their self-control, which is the ability to resist stimuli. Two factors that also influence human life.
Two scholars from University College Cork, Ireland, have analyzed the Great Tit, a very common bird in Europe and Asia, and in particular its eating habits. And they found that these are influenced by the birds' personality, that is, how they relate to the outside world, and by their self-control, which is the ability to resist stimuli. Two factors that also influence human life. And they found that both affect how animals get their food.
Many animals, by continuing to carry out the same behavior driven by natural impulses, end up harming themselves. The scientists wondered if they could change their behaviors instead.
They trained the titmice to search for hidden food that could only be accessed from one side of an opaque plastic tube. When they then changed the tube to one that was transparent but identical in openings, the animals tried to reach the food not from the open hole on the side, but from where they could - finally - see it.
Not all of them, though: some titmice remembered the previous tube and got to the food from the side opening. This "detour experiment" is often used to figure out whether an animal can control or inhibit its impulses to reach for food when it sees it. A mechanism that underlies self-control.
Scientists carried out a similar experiment to validate their findings: they first hid food under a stone to teach the titmice to reach it. Then they added more food in a much more accessible area: the tits more "adaptable" and with more self-control chose the food easy to reach, the others continued to strive to reach the one under the rock.
The role of personality
To study the personality of tits, biologists used an exploration test: it is used to measure the tendency to explore new spaces, which is an element that is very similar to the openness to new experiences of human beings.
Specifically, they moved the birds into a new room, with artificial trees that the titmice had never seen: and then observed how many animals, fluttering, moved into the new room.
Some moved more: studies have shown that this simple personality trait is inherited from parents and predicts many future behaviors, including sexual promiscuity in males. And of course, those who explore earlier or faster are also more willing to take risks, exposing themselves to greater danger to get more food, or new food that looks more inviting.
So these two factors combined (tendency to explore and self-control) are actually elements that determine how much and what food individual titmice will get. And that's not the only "special ability" of birds.