Article image

Birds' social networks greatly influence their food choices

In the realm of avian behavior, a study led by the University of Oxford has illuminated the crucial role of bird’s social networks. The research reveals a fascinating link: birds ingrained in more social circles exhibit a higher propensity for exploring and utilizing novel food sources.

This revelation significantly enriches our understanding of animal behavior. It highlights the intricate interplay between social structures and survival strategies in nature.

The social network of the skies

At the heart of this research is the amazing observation that feeding in groups offers birds a suite of benefits. These include heightened vigilance against greedy predators and improved efficiency in locating food.

However, this social dining comes with its share of tough challenges – mainly the intensified competition for the available resources.

It’s within this context that the team discovered a compelling behavioral adaptation. By diversifying their diet to include previously untapped food options, sociable birds can effectively mitigate the competition inherent in their social circles.

Focus of the study

Conducted in the verdant expanse of Wytham Woods in Oxfordshire, the experts meticulously tracked the foraging patterns of 105 wild great tits during the winter season.

The birds were equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, and their interactions at feeding stations were closely monitored. Additionally, the researchers analyzed the positions of individual birds within the social network – defined by the number of their social connections and preferred associates.

New food choices

The crux of the experiment involved introducing new food choices at the feeding stations. The options were between the familiar comfort of ground peanuts and the intrigue of the same nuts dyed in vibrant hues of red or green.

Over a span of 19 days, the researchers charted the birds’ engagement with these novel food options. They sought correlations with a variety of factors, including the birds’ social connectivity.

Social birds expand their diets

The findings were unequivocal. Birds with more robust social ties exhibited a marked preference for the novel food, consuming it at significantly higher rates than their less sociable counterparts.

Intriguingly, this pattern held true regardless of other seemingly potential influencing factors such as age, sex, flock size, or overall feeding activity.

Notably, sociability did not affect the speed at which these birds initially approached the novel food – with 92% of the participants venturing to try it. However, it did play a strikingly decisive role in their subsequent preference for it.

“This indicates that the increased usage of the novel food by the more social birds was not due to them being generally more exploratory or brave, but rather that more social birds are more likely to use novel food as a way of expanding their diets to offset the costs of having more foraging associates,” said Dr. Keith McMahon, the lead researcher from the Department of Biology at Oxford.

This insight challenges pre-existing notions about animal behavior, remarkably suggesting that sociability, rather than innate boldness, drives dietary expansion.

Sociality and survival in the animal kingdom

Looking ahead, the research team plans to investigate further. They are extremely interested in how social birds might leverage their networks to gain information about new food sources. This could thereby bolster their confidence in experimenting with these alternatives.

Dr. Josh Firth, a senior researcher involved in the study, emphasized the potential directions for future research. “The findings suggest that highly social birds may alleviate the costs of competition for food by foraging more broadly and exploiting novel food sources, but future research could explore whether there are additional reasons which explain why more social individuals are more likely to tolerate new foods.”

This study not only advances our understanding of the behavioral strategies that birds employ to navigate the challenges of social living. It also opens up new avenues for exploring the intricate dynamics between sociality and survival in the animal kingdom.

As we delve deeper into these relationships, we gain a broader perspective on the natural world and the myriad strategies employed by its inhabitants to thrive within it.

The study is published in the journal iScience.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day