Let's Ask: Are City Birds Smarter Than Country Birds?

A study has shown that not only are birds living in major cities smarter than their rural counterparts, they're more immune to diseases. While our dominance of land here on Earth has created a far smaller natural environment for birds over the past several thousand years, Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D student in the Department of Biology, says that urban birds have done more than just adapt to us, they've become more advanced amongst humans than out in the country on their own.

A team of all-McGill University researchers has set about to conduct the first-ever study of cognitive differences between country birds and city birds. Above you'll see two bullfinches, birds key to conducting this experiment due to their diverse set of chosen environments.

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"We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than rural birds," said Audet.

"Since urban birds were better at problem-solving, we expected that there would be a trade-off and that the immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can't be good at everything' (in fact, both traits are costly)."

"This was really surprising. It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all."

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This study was conducted in Barbados at the McGill Bellairs facility, capturing and studying (then releasing, of course), bullfinches from "various parts of the Caribbean island."

"The island of Barbados shows a strong range of human settlement," said Audet. "There are some very developed areas but also mostly left untouched, thus providing an excellent environment to study the effects of urbanization."

As you'll see in the video above, very basic tests of cognition and problem-solving skills were conducted.

Researchers showed major differences in problem-solving activities – opening drawers to access food, for example. Opening cups to find food was also a common test.

These researchers also suggest that city birds were bolder in tests when it came to harsh temperatures.

To dive deep into this study, see "The town bird and the country bird: problem solving and immunocompetence vary with urbanization" as authored by Jean-Nicolas Audet, Simon Ducatez, and Louis Lefebvre. This study can be found in Oxford Journals' Behavioral Ecology under code doi: 10.1093/beheco/arv201.