Tag Archives: Tits

Did you know that chickens listen to great tits?

Naked Neck hens and a great tit (small insert)

Maybe you are familiar with this situation: a group of crows is searching for food in a meadow. Suddenly one of them gives an alarm call and all birds fly off.

When animals live in groups often one of the group members will warn the others when it detects danger. Additionally, wild animals often react to alarm calls of other species, especially if they have common predators.

Domesticated animals also warn members of their group about danger. Free-range chickens behave appropriately when another chicken gives an alarm call. But do they react to alarm calls of wild birds? This is a valid question since, first of all, chickens were bred for hundreds of years for their meat or egg laying rather than survival skills. Secondly, most of the time humans provided at least some protection against predators. And lastly, unfortunately, in recent decades most of the chickens lived (and still live) indoors, completely isolated from nature and any predation besides humans.

Recently scientists decided to check if chickens respond to alarm call of wild birds, and specifically great tits. These bird species are both preyed upon by for example buzzards and goshawks. Researchers installed speakers on a free-range farm of Naked Neck chickens in France and played recordings of either great tits’ alarm calls or of their songs.

For the majority of the time hearing great tit alarm calls, the chickens were vigilant – they kept an erect posture and scanned their surroundings. When great tit songs were played the chickens spent less than half of the time vigilant.

At this moment it is unclear whether the response to alarm calls is instinctive or learned. However, if you plan to open a free-range chicken farm, it may be profitable to do it somewhere where many song birds live, even if they sometimes steal some chicken food.


Photos: Great tit – Petr Ganaj from Pexels.com; Naked Neck chickens – Simone Ramella from Rome, Italy – Corte Cecina, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3830746


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Did you know that great tits are conformists and can form traditions?

Probably everyone in Europe is familiar with this little bird – great tit. And the winter is a great period to observe them as they often come to birdfeeders in gardens and on balconies. They usually come in pairs or small groups.

It is known that these birds are innovative but they can also learn from each other and they seem to follow the behaviour of majority of a population (group of birds that live in one area). Therefore, showing conformity.

At least when it comes to opening puzzle boxes. A few years ago, researchers in the UK trained a couple of wild great tits from different locations to open a puzzle box by either sliding its door to the left or to the right (one bird learned only one method)*.

Then they released them into the wild and provided puzzle boxes filled with mealworms (a delicacy for the great tits) that could open either way (both to the left and to the right).

Within 20 day most of the birds knew how to open the boxes and it seems that they learned it from the trained individuals, as in populations without trained birds much fewer individuals managed to get to the worms.

But what is more interesting, most of the birds in a given area used the method that was used by the trained bird (left or right slide) even if the other way was equally difficult and rewarding. This shows social learning from others.

But here comes even a more amazing finding. There were birds that actually used both ways of opening the box (some probably learned the less common variant individually, by trial and error). However, most of these individuals still preferred the most common behaviour. And some of them even switched from the less common to more common behaviour. But never the other way round.

If immigrant birds came from areas with different traditions, most of them changed their behaviour to match the locals (A reader who is themselves an immigrant will probably understand this).

When researchers returned the next year, they saw that the local traditions were even more pronounced, with fewer birds using uncommon method to open the box.

All these observations show that not only humans follow societal norms and have traditions (group-specific, socially learned, and often arbitrary behaviour) that they learn through conformism.

Although, like in human populations, there were still few birds that did not follow societal norms and just slid that door against local tradition.

* How do you train the bird to open the box the way you want? Well, block the door so it can open in only one way. The training part is quite simple (in case you want to train your own pets – please do not capture wild birds!). First show the birds an open box with worms inside that they can just pick up. Then, each time close the door more and more until the birds can reliably open it even if it’s fully closed (great tits learned that in 4 days).


Photo of great tit by Petr Ganaj from Pexels.com


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