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Does a Bird’s Personality Influence where it Chooses to Live?

It’s a strange question, isn’t it? But had you ever wondered how birds choose where to live? Because they do benefit from some degree of choice. Humans certainly have different tastes when it comes to their homes.

Homes in London

In 2015, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on the personalities of people living in the different London boroughs. The researchers had found that extroverts prefer Richmond, Wandsworth and Lambeth whilst those who were most open to new experiences preferred to live in Hackney and Islington. The residents of Barnet and Lewisham had issues with emotional stability!

The results were interesting but did not reveal whether the residents of an area were attracted to it because of their personalities or whether their personalities were changed by where they lived.

Dunnocks in New Zealand

Now similar research has been carried out into dunnocks in New Zealand. Benedikt Holtmann of Otago University, in New Zealand, and his team published their results recently. They make for interesting reading as they managed to establish that birds to choose where they settle and that personality plays a role in that choice.

Wild Birds Have Personalities

Most animals show some degree of individual personality, birds certainly do. The dunnock or hedge sparrow is a European bird but has been introduced to New Zealand where it has thrived. Studies have revealed that the birds do possess distinctive personalities with some being noticeably bolder than others when it comes to their response to threat. One potential treat is the proximity of a human being.

The team from Otago University looked at dunnocks in the Botanic Garden in Dunedin, the city where the university is based. This is open to the public, but some areas of the garden are frequented by more visitors than others.

Small Territories

Dunnocks have very small territories, so it was possible to measure the amount of human disturbance in a given territory with accuracy. Each of the dunnocks was ringed so it was possible to identify individuals. Altogether, the researchers looked at 99 individual birds. To discover each bird’s reaction to stress, one of the researchers would walk towards it and then measure how close they could get before the bird flew away. They tested each bird several times over the course of three seasons.

Birds get Bolder

The team found that the birds got bolder as time went on. They were apparently learning about the world and what they could safely do. But, more importantly, there were big differences between the behaviour of the individuals from the outset. Not all of their behaviour was learned. The birds which were found to be the boldest had chosen to inhabit the areas with the most human activity. The shy birds were to be found in the quietest area of the garden.

The dunnocks were displaying the power of nature winning over nurture. Dr Holtmann was able to show that the birds’ personalities match their chosen home, rather than being created by them. Dunnocks can recognise which places suit them best, and choose to settle in them shortly after they fledge.


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