Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Deciding where, what, and with whom to eat: We can learn a lot from birds

Telling someone they're a bird brain isn't an insult

When I'm hungry I often ask myself where, what, and with whom shall I eat?  And, is there any place or anyone I want to avoid? Many animals also ask these questions.

Living around Boulder, Colorado is a treat. Many animals are easy to see, hear, and yes, to smell. Their accessibility makes it easy to study their behavior, even from the dining room table.

A common bird that's very interesting is the Steller's jay (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/stellers_jay/id). Its deep blue color, large, regal head crest, and annoying squawk make it difficult to ignore. I've discovered that many different interacting factors influence feeding behavior. There really weren't any simple answers to the questions of where, what, and with whom to dine.

To figure out how birds made decisions about where, what, and with whom to eat I fed them sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, or a mix of the two, and filmed them on two feeding platforms on my back porch. My colleagues and I found jays were most attracted to sunflower seeds. Jays also paid a lot of attention to other jays. When another jay was nearby on the same platform, but not when the jay was at some distance at the other platform, they pecked at a lower rate.

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The simple relationships we first discovered could have lulled us into thinking that feeding behavior of jays was pretty straightforward and so clever for figuring it all out. We could predict what jays would do if we knew seed type and whether or not other jays were around.

But the story wasn't as clean or simple as we thought. Additional studies showed that feeding patterns are simultaneously affected by many variables, including the seed types offered at the two feeders, the presence of other jays and even fox squirrels, the relative dominance of the birds, and the distance of the feeding platform to the protective cover of nearby trees. Jays were making complex decisions after evaluating the total situation and not just one variable at a time.

In a nutshell, we found that the presence of other animals could override a preference for sunflower seeds. They weren't all that appealing when other jays, especially more dominant individuals, were present on a feeder. We didn't know this when we only considered seed type but ignored possible interactions between seed type and the presence of other jays, especially dominant birds.

Jays also selected the unoccupied feeder over one occupied by another jay or a squirrel, with squirrels being avoided much more than other jays. Jays also usually chose the feeder further from cover possibly because it was more accessible - there were more arrival and departure routes. The more open feeder also might have allowed jays to more easily watch other animals. Jays didn't suffer much predation at our study site so being more exposed didn't seem to have any negative effects.

Similar to many other animals, jays make complex choices by simultaneously evaluating various stimuli - what's available, where it is, and who's around. They're pretty smart. Models that take into account the ways in which various stimuli are integrated are more realistic than those that only consider a single stimulus. The neat thing is that you can repeat these types of experiments with jays and other animals to learn more about their worlds - how they use all sorts of input to make adaptive choices right in front of your eyes. Saying someone's a bird brain isn't an insult at all. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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