Birds choose their neighbors based on personality

(University of Oxford 7 May 2017; Photo Soru Epotok)

Birds of a feather nest together, according to a new study which has found that male great tits (Parus major) choose neighbours with similar personalities to their own.

Oxford University researchers investigated whether the personality of birds influences their social lives — in particular who they choose to nest near. The study involved analysing social network structure in a population of wild great tits at Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, over six consecutive breeding seasons.

Lead author and doctoral student Katerina Johnson explained: ‘We found that males, but not females, were picky about personalities, with males opting for like-minded neighbours. Our results emphasise that social interactions may play a key role in animal decisions.’

This tendency for males to associate with other males of similar personality may be particularly important during the breeding season when aggression peaks. Males fiercely defend their territories and compete for opportunities to mate with females and so shyer males may avoid setting up home near bolder, more aggressive individuals. Females, however, likely choose where to nest based on the attractive qualities of males.

The results also showed that this personality assortment amongst males was not affected by local environmental conditions. ‘Just like students choosing their flatmates,” Katerina commented, ‘birds may pay more attention to who they share their living space with than simply location.” She added: “Animal personalities can influence their social organisation and humans are likewise known to form social networks based on shared attributes including personality.’

Just like us, animals display individual behavioural differences that are consistent over time and stable across different situations, and so may be thought of as personality traits. The researchers tested the personality of great tits by introducing them to a new environment and measuring how they responded. Whilst bold birds are keen to actively explore their new surroundings, shy birds tend to be more hesitant and cautious.

Katerina said: ‘This novel research finding may also help explain the evolution of personality and why individuals in a population differ in their behaviour. Rather than one particular personality type being favoured by natural selection as ‘the best’, different behavioural strategies may be equally good depending on who you choose to be your friends and neighbours.’

Perhaps by nesting closer to others of similar character, this may improve a bird’s chances of survival and passing on their genes to the next generation. For example, although having bold neighbours may result in more skirmishes between males, they might also gain a shared benefit by more effectively repelling intruders.

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