Contrary to the widespread practice of social distancing in humans, house finches exhibit an increased tendency to socialize when they are sick, particularly during feeding times. This is the conclusion of a recent study led by Marissa Langager, a PhD student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech.
While most social animals tend to isolate when sick, house finches behave differently. They show an increased inclination to be around their healthy flock mates. A notable aspect of their behavior is their preference to eat in the company of their flock, more so when they are unwell.
“The recent pandemic years of isolating and quarantining have shown us that social distancing to avoid getting sick can also have detrimental aspects for group living animals,” said Langager.
“The costs of going solo may be particularly high for sick animals especially if they rely on their healthy groupmates to help them find food or avoid predators. Ultimately, this might be the reason that finches become even more social when sick, inadvertently putting their healthy flock mates at risk because bird feeders, where house finches like to gather to feed, are a major means of spreading disease.”
The study is one of the first to directly examine how acute infections caused by contagious pathogens influence social preferences. Langager noted that this research sheds light on how social animals behave when sick and can inform other studies in the field.
“Since all social animals – including humans – get sick, it is important to understand the costs and benefits of group living more broadly,” said Langager.
“We may be able to use this information to predict disease spread in social animals. And it can also help us understand when and where we might expect healthy animals to evolve the ability to avoid sick groupmates who remain in the group at risk to their healthy groupmates. “
Intrigued by the unexpected results, Langager plans to delve deeper into the reasons behind sick finches’ preference for social eating in her doctoral dissertation. She aims to understand why sick birds exert energy to maintain social connections, hypothesizing significant benefits to this behavior.
Langager is designing experiments to assess how group dynamics influence a sick bird’s response to predators and their foraging success.
“Maintaining social relationships can take a lot of energy for the birds I study,” said Langager. “So if these birds are putting forth the energy to keep hanging around their social groups even when they are sick, it is most likely because of the benefit to them.”
House finches are small, colorful songbirds known for their vibrant plumage and melodious songs. They display a variety of interesting characteristics and behaviors.
Males typically display bright red, orange, or yellowish plumage on their heads, necks, and chests, creating a striking contrast against their more brownish-gray feathered bodies.
By contrast, female house finches have brownish-gray feathers with subtle streaks, exhibiting a more subdued appearance compared to the males.
These birds are about the size of a house sparrow but are more slender in build. They possess a strong, cone-shaped beak that is slightly curved, an adaptation that allows them to efficiently crack open seeds, which form a significant part of their diet.
House finches are quite adaptable and are often found in settled areas such as city parks and residential backyards. They are known to build nests in various urban structures, including chimneys, attics, and dryer vents. Social creatures by nature, they typically travel in pairs or small groups and are monogamous.
Their social behavior extends to their feeding habits. During the day, they can be seen perching on trees or power lines, and at night, they roost in small groups in trees. The loud, warbling song of the house finch is a familiar sound, particularly after sunrise and just before sunset during the breeding season.
House finches are closely related to the Cassin’s Finch and the Purple Finch, all of which are part of the taxonomic genus Haemorhous, sometimes collectively referred to as American Rosefinches. Originally native to the Southwest, these adaptable and cheery-voiced birds have expanded their range and are now common across the United States.
The study is published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.
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