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Wild Birds Choose Love, Not Food

Nov 13, 2015 04:12 PM EST
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Great Tit bird
Some birds will choose not to eat, if it means that they cannot eat alongside their matched mates. This was the case for small passerine birds in the United Kingdom in a recent study by University of Oxford.
(Photo : Keith McMahon)

Instead of celebrating Valentine's Day with special restaurant reservations and red-foil boxes of chocolates, how about couples abstain from food to stay together?

At least, this is love for certain wild birds, says a new study by University of Oxford researchers. Their report was recently published in the journal Current Biology.

Essentially, small birds called great tits, which are green and yellow and range over most of the United Kingdom, ranked their relationships over sustaining food in the study. The lead author, Josh Firth at Oxford, said in a release: "The choice to stay close to their partner over accessing food demonstrates how an individual bird's decisions in the short term, which might appear sub-optimal, can actually be shaped around gaining the long-term benefits of maintaining their key relationships. For instance, great tits require a partner to be able to reproduce and raise their chicks. Therefore, even in wild animals, an individual's behavior can be governed by aiming to accommodate the needs of those they are socially attached to."

Using automated feeding stations that allowed access based on ID tags linked to radio frequency technology, the researchers were able to make sure that in some of the cases, only one of each pair could eat at a single feeding location. The birds that were not able to feed with their partners generally elected not to eat at the feeding stations they could access on their own, according to the release.

Staying with their partners, the birds also associated more with their partners' flock-mates, noted Firth in the release: "Because these birds choose to stay with their partners, they also end up associating with their partners' flock-mates, even if they wouldn't usually associate with these individuals. This shows how the company an individual bird keeps may depend on their partner's preferences as well as their own."

The birds also innovated their own access to some of the stations; they found that a feeder accessible by a partner would stay unlocked for two seconds after it opened for a bird's ID tag. Then, the bird that normally did not have access to that feeder was able to access it after all. Also, in many cases the bird's partner unlocked the feeding station for them, "suggesting it may be a cooperative strategy," noted Firth in the release.

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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