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Zebra finches build nests based on past successes and failures

Scientists at the University of Alberta have discovered that zebra finches build their nests based on past experiences. The study revealed that birds who have previously stumbled upon materials that are reliable for successfully raising chicks will seek out the same materials for their next nest. 

“This study adds to the small but growing area of research about nest-building behavior that challenges long-held assumptions about why animals do what they do,” said Guillette.

“While one can find many references in both the scientific and lay literature that suggest nest building in birds is entirely pre-programmed, our work shows that birds learn and modify the material they put into their nest based on past breeding experiences with that or similar material.”

The results show that nest building is a behavior based on learning and experience, and sheds new light on the decision-making process used by birds.

“We found that when presented with a choice between a familiar material, coconut fiber, and a never-before-encountered material, white string, zebra finches who had successfully raised chicks preferred to stick with the same material they had previously used. Birds who failed to raise chicks built nests with equal amounts of familiar and novel material,” explained study lead author and PhD student Andrés Camacho-Alpízar.

The research suggests that zebra finches who have built successful nests in the past tend to stick with tried-and-true methods when gathering their materials, while less successful birds opt for trying something new.

“Much like human architecture is ever-adapting – from changing styles to improved construction materials – birds also adapt their nest-building behavior based on trial-and-error learning,” explained Camacho-Alpízar.

The experts also noted that all of the birds took fewer days to complete their second nests compared with their first.

“Our results show that experiencing either a successful or an unsuccessful breeding attempt influences how birds select between familiar and novel material with different structural properties (e.g. flexibility, thickness) to build a second nest,” wrote the researchers. 

“Moreover, our experiment shows that learning from experience plays an important role for decision making in future structure-building endeavors.”

The study is published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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