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Research by scientists at Victoria University’s School of Biological Sciences has shown that North Island robins (Petroica longipes) living at the ZEALANDIA ecosanctuary in Wellington have the ability to recognise different people.

The researchers think that the birds’ differing reactions to people may lie in the robin’s individual behavioural type.

Simple feeding experiment

Dr Craig Barnett, a postdoctoral fellow who is currently based in Japan, led the 3-month-long research project, which has been published in the science journal PLoS ONE. Using a simple feeding experiment with mealworms as a food source, Dr Barnett and his colleagues timed how long it took the robins to attack food placed near a person.

For 7 days, the same person dressed in a white lab coat stood 1 m from the food source. On the 8th day, a different person, this time wearing a blue coat, stood 1 m from the food source. During this time, the researchers noted different behaviours associated with individual birds.

“We split the birds into two groups: ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ attackers, depending on their average attack times,” said Dr Barnett in a press release from the university.

“Interestingly, the results showed that the attack times of the faster, bolder birds didn’t change much when the new human appeared. However, the slower birds, which were more cautious around humans, displayed even longer attack times when the new person arrived on the 8th day.”

The researchers write in their published paper that this is probably because birds that are fast to attack may also be faster to form routines and explore novel environments and may be less detail orientated than slower individuals.

Distinct personalities among birds

Dr Barnett believes the differences in behaviour are caused by there being distinct personalities among the bird population and says the findings have important implications for conservation efforts.

“Some birds were clearly oblivious to the differences in people, while other birds paid more attention. Behavioural differences could play an important role in programmes to shift and manage bird populations.”

For example, if too many bold individuals were removed from a population to create a new population, they may not thrive due to a greater lack of caution around predators.

Dr Kevin Burns, a New Zealand natural history expert based in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, says the research sheds new light on the personality traits of birds.

“North Island robins are an interesting species because, although they are capable of quite complex cognitive tasks, such as counting, they have so far failed to adapt to urban environments,” he says.

Implications for conservation efforts

North Island robins are vulnerable to predators as they predominantly feed on the ground, and their nests are easily accessible. In their research paper, the authors note that the birds’ failure to adapt to urban environments is probably because of life history constraints and a lack of behavioural defences against mammalian predators rather than a lack of cognitive ability or a lack of exposure to humans.

“While individuals in other bird and animal species have been shown to be able to recognise individual humans, this is the first instance where it has been shown that different behavioural types within a species might perform a task differently.

“This new information could assist with conservation efforts in other island nations, for example, Hawaii, which is also working towards protecting and preserving endemic wildlife,” says Dr Burns.

Along with the population at ZEALANDIA, North Island robins can be found in forests of the western and central North Island and on Little Barrier and Kapiti Islands.

Activity idea

North Island robins are vulnerable because they feed on the ground and have easily accessible nests. Your students may like to investigate why New Zealand birds behave the way they do by doing this bird adaptations activity.
Classifying bird adaptations

    Published 19 August 2013 Referencing Hub articles