or, in this case, a neophobic Blue Tit in a cage is also a neophobic Blue Tit in the wild. Now this, might not sound like anything of particular ground-breaking significance, but in the context of animal personality research, it is a fairly big thing.

Whilst working on Scarlet Macaws in Costa Rica, I had the pleasure of having Katherine Herbourn assist with some of the field work we were doing. Katherine went on to continue with her academic career and has just completed a fascinating PhD entitled “Variation in response to environmental cues when foraging” in which she examined Blue Tits Cyanistes caeruleus and Greenfinches Carduelis chloris, amongst other species, in an effort to try understand the factors that affect foraging behaviour.

Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) with a frog in its food. (c) Katherine Herbourn

Katherine started off by looking at how captive Blue Tits responded to having a bright red frog placed in their food bowl. Evidently, some individuals were a whole lot more wary of the unknown intruder than others. This gets me wondering how I would react if my Thai green curry had a red frog floating in it. I think I would just eat around it. As long as the red frog had never been living. In which case, I have no idea how I would react.

Item B is a plastic red frog. I think item A is the top of a purple Klingon’s head. Photo (c) Katherine Herbourn

She also characterized the exploratory tendency of these Blue Tits. These sorts of tests have been done in many species and it has always been assumed (hoped), that what they found in the little white cages at the back of the zoology department had some wonderful relevance to what happened in the real world. So Katherine let all her new found friends out again (with appropriate jewellery, of course).

This Blue Tit was not scared when his feeder suddenly turned green. (c) Katherine Herbourn

As it turned out, the Blue Tits that were scared of the silly plastic toys in their food (let’s call them neophiles to sound fancy), were the same tits that got wary of the feeding station (which they had been feeding at previously) when it suddenly changed colour. And – surprise surprise – the Blue Tits that were more exploratory in their feeding habits, trying out newly available food sources in new locations (and at different times), were equally exploratory in the wild as they were back in the lab.

Now, none of this surprised me. Sweet, so they show the same personality traits in a cage as in the wild. But what did surprise me was that these two traits were independent. Evidently, the birds that were not afraid of the unknown at a trusted feeding station were not necessarily the same birds as those that were seeking out completely new feeding locations or opportunities.

I wonder, do we find a similar thing in people?

If I am very exploratory in my restaurant choice (or holiday venue), does this say anything about my reaction when something unknown “invades” my personal space or trusted environment?

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

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Written by Dale Forbes
Dale got his first pair of binoculars for a very early birthday after his dad realized that it was the only way to be left in peace. Many robins, eagles and finches later, he ended up at university studying various biology things and wrote a thesis on vertebrate biogeography in southern African forests. While studying, he also worked on various conservation/research projects (parrots, wagtails, vultures, and anything else that flew) and ringed thousands of birds. Dale studied scarlet macaws, and worked in their conservation, for three years in southern Costa Rica, followed by a year in the Caribbean working on Whale Sharks. After meeting the woman of his dreams, he moved to Austria where he now has the coolest job in the world making awesome toys for birders (Swarovski Optik product manager). He happens to also be obsessed with photography, particularly digiscoping, and despite all efforts will almost certainly never be a good birder. He also blogs for birdingblogs.com