Great tits: What a study tells us about their per­son­al­i­ties

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney

For some weeks it seemed that the acre had lost nearly all its birds. One or two loyal black­birds screeched from be­neath my feet and the odd wren still rock­eted from bush to bush. The oaths from a pass­ing raven echoed from an empty sky.

Peanuts for Hal­loween were, of course, the an­swer. With so many berries on hawthorn hedge and ram­bler rose and so many spires of seed­ing weeds, we do not rush in au­tumn to glut­tonise the birds. But a cou­ple of feed­ers swing­ing in the wind had cus­tomers in half an hour.

Goldfinches were first, mob-handed, con­jured from nowhere like a ma­gi­cian’s bright silk hand­ker­chiefs. And then, un­til the finches ganged up on them, a pair of great tits, one at ei­ther side.

That, as it hap­pened, was also a bit of sud­den magic – to be read­ing reams of stuff about Parus ma­jor on the com­puter and then, hav­ing missed them for so long, to glance past the screen and find them there in per­son.

Fond as I have been of the great tit, and wel­com­ing its squeaky bi­cy­cle pump, as a con­fir­ma­tion of spring, it had never oc­curred to me to won­der about its per­son­al­ity. The corvids have per­son­al­ity – mag­pies teas­ing dogs, ravens solv­ing puz­zles, New Cale­do­nian crows craft­ing tools, choughs weav­ing dances in the air. But tits?

That was to reckon with­out the quest­ing mind of science. It has de­cided that, to take a ran­dom def­i­ni­tion, “in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals dif­fer in the way they cope with chal­lenges in their en­vi­ron­ment, com­pa­ra­ble with vari­a­tion in hu­man per­son­al­i­ties”. And since the per­son­al­ity traits are linked to genes, how they sur­vive in nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tions can of­fers lessons for evo­lu­tion.

Po­ten­tial for study

When be­havioural ecol­o­gists turned to birds, they looked for species with the best po­ten­tial for long-term study. At the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, al­ready a lead­ing cen­tre of or­nithol­ogy, the com­mon great and blue tits ticked all the re­search boxes. They were happy to nest in the wooden ones, pro­lif­i­cally and at high den­sity, with­out trav­el­ling too far or ob­ject­ing to be­ing mon­i­tored by sci­en­tists.

Ox­ford also had Wytham Woods just a few kilo­me­tres away, a “lab­o­ra­tory with leaves” be­queathed to the univer­sity in 1942. For more than half a cen­tury, the en­tire 358 hectares of the old broadleaf wood­land have held some 1,000 nest boxes. This has al­lowed in­di­vid­ual mark­ing of bird par­ents and off­spring, span­ning up to 40 gen­er­a­tions, in one of the long­est-run­ning eco­log­i­cal stud­ies in the world.

The study of great tit per­son­al­ity is rel­a­tively new. Its de­vel­op­ing re­search has prompted par­al­lel ex­per­i­ments in the Nether­lands and at Univer­sity Col­lege Cork, where it is led by Dr John Quinn, a be­havioural ecol­o­gist who worked for four years with the great tits of Wytham Woods. As a pro­fes­sor of zo­ol­ogy at UCC, he has been set­ting up stud­ies on the birds that nest among frag­ments of wood­land along Co Cork’s Ban­don val­ley.

While this has yet to ma­ture into aca­demic pa­pers, the re­sults from Quinn’s team­work at Wytham Woods are al­ready putting shape on great tit per­son­al­ity.

The lat­est study, Per­son­al­ity Shapes Pair Bond­ing in a Wild Bird So­cial Sys­tem, just pub­lished in Na­ture Ecol­ogy & Evo­lu­tion, shows that bolder, more proac­tive males choose their part­ners sooner in win­ter and pay them more at­ten­tion be­fore breed­ing in spring be­gins. Shy males are less de­voted to form­ing a strong pair bond and spend more of their time flock­ing with other fe­males.

Flock­ing to­gether

Mi­crochipped for iden­tity and tracked by ra­dio, it was pos­si­ble to pick out the ones that stuck to­gether in win­ter flocks. They were then given a per­son­al­ity test to see how “bold” they were in ex­plor­ing new en­vi­ron­ments.

Bolder, more proac­tive males choose their part­ners sooner in win­ter and pay them more at­ten­tion be­fore breed­ing in spring be­gins

A re­cent Dutch study de­scribes a typ­i­cal test, with great tits cap­tured in the field out­side the breed­ing sea­son, us­ing mist nests or re­trieval from roosts. They were kept for a night in lab­o­ra­tory cages, then re­leased alone, through a slid­ing door, into a room with five ar­ti­fi­cial trees.

Their ob­servers recorded the num­ber of hops they made be­tween branches within trees or flights be­tween trees dur­ing the first two min­utes of en­try. This was the bird’s “ex­plo­ration score”. There’s much more to sup­port the con­clu­sion of the study’s ti­tle: “Pairs of ex­treme avian per­son­al­i­ties have high­est re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess.”

The last time I looked, there were again two great tits at­tempt­ing to land on the feeder – one male, one fe­male (with a nar­row belly band) mak­ing sep­a­rate sor­ties at the nuts. But each time they were quickly re­pulsed by the oc­cu­py­ing goldfinches.

Their scores for re­tal­ia­tory ag­gres­sion, one sup­poses, might not be the best. But they’ll hang around, I’m sure, to take their chance when all those flash finches have flocked off.

Great tits: Shy males are less de­voted to form­ing a strong pair bond and spend more of their time flock­ing with other fe­males. IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MICHAEL VINEY

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