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Birds Teach Each Other Not to be Afraid of Cocktail Umbrellas

Juvenile Sparrow and adult perched on a branch
Binson Calfort/Shutterstock

Just like humans, animals can learn from watching each other. Louisiana State University (LSU) researchers have recently found that social learning occurs among house sparrows through experiments involving—among other things—cocktail umbrellas.

Yikes: A pink puff!

Foraging habits. Songs. Predator avoidance. Migration routes. These are all examples of social learning behaviors that are seen across the animal kingdom. In their study, the LSU researchers wanted to see if house sparrows could use social learning to evaluate danger.

To conduct the work, the researchers put a range of objects near the birds’ food bowls. These objects included a red dish, tinfoil hood, three gold bells, yellow pipe cleaners, a purple plastic egg, pink puffs, and yes, an open blue cocktail umbrella. The first step was trying to figure out how brave or timid individual birds were among a group of 24 sparrows. This determination was made based on whether the birds approached their bowls without hesitation and ate with a strange object right next to it, or if they acted more cautiously, a behavior known as “neophobia.”

Bird Bravery

Ten “brave” sparrows emerged, who were then paired with the more timid birds and put into cages where an object neither had ever seen before was placed next to the food bowl. After hanging out with each other for a week, the birds were all returned to their individual cages.

The researchers found that the cautious birds that had spent time with the bold birds then became, on average, 2.6 times more likely to approach their food bowls when new strange objects were placed next to them. In short, the timid birds overcame their neophobia thanks to watching the behavior from the braver birds.

Learning to Thrive

House sparrows are found on every continent except Antarctica, from Buenos Aires to Alaska and New Zealand to Cape Town, according to The Wildlife Trusts. They are highly social and can live pretty much anywhere, from bushes to crevices in buildings. The fact that it’s now been proven that they can learn from each other might be a key to their success.

“A lot of species that get introduced don’t become established, but house sparrows are very successful,” said senior study author and LSU Department of Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Christine Lattin. “Our findings from this study might be part of what explains their success as an invasive species. How an individual species responds to novelty can have a big impact on whether or not they can coexist with people in cities and other human-altered environments. It may also indicate whether they are going to be able to benefit from increased food availability and other kinds of opportunities that humans bring along with them or if they are going to just be shut out.”

The research was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Biology Letters.