Studies show some great tits are remarkably clever when it comes to solving problems to get at food. But does this help them in the wild?
BE CAREFUL who you call a bird brain, you may be paying them a compliment. Some bird species exhibit remarkable intelligence, among them the great tit, which is a common garden bird.
The New Caledonian crow is top of the leader board with its capacity to fashion tools to retrieve food, but the local great tit doesn’t do too badly when it comes to solving problems. Dr John Quinn, a specialist in animal personality and cognition, began to study the bird four years ago while at Oxford University. He and his team caught wild great tits in a nearby wood and set the birds a simple problem. If they solved it, they would get at some food.
Now a lecturer in ecology at University College Cork, Quinn had a particular purpose in mind when conducting the experiments. “We are trying to understand why we get individual variations in the birds’ cognitive ability,” he says.
They were also trying to discover whether it is “better to be brighter” – whether the birds that were able to solve the puzzle also did better generally, either reproductively or in terms of survival. “The purpose of our study was simple: to test if it was better being a problem-solver. That hadn’t been tested in the past. Do they do better or do all individuals do equally well in the end?