Flock Sourcing

Attracting birds to our yards by feeding them is a common morning activity for many people, especially during the winter. The small, pretty ones are more welcome than the big dull ones. We have many arrangements that make it easier for our favored guests to get the food and keeping unwelcome ones like crows or squirrels out.

We admire the agility and ingenuity of our pretty friends in getting the treats we put out for them. In the UK, the Tit family, especially Blue Tits and Great Tits are particularly loved, even when they have pecked through the tops of the milk bottles on the doorstep (in places where doorstep deliveries still take place.) Morand-Ferron and Quinn of Oxford U are fond of watching these pretty birds and report a study of their problem solving abilities using some automated feeding puzzles (1).

There were two main findings. The first was that the problem of getting into the food was solved quicker if the flock size was larger – crowd sourcing wins again. Secondly, and this is good news for the old fogies amongst us, the solution was reached faster if at least one experienced “problem solver” was included in the flock. This fits nicely with the studies on people that suggests that diverse groups, but which include at least one experienced person in the area, are best at problem solving.

The usual model of group living is that large groups tend to limit access to the food supply, as it has to be spread thinner. Now the good news is that the “pool of competence” that occurs in the larger flocks, improves the problem solving ability and hence, the exploitation of the food sources so that everybody eats better.

Don’t you just love it when common sense and working together for the general good work out better than “the devil take the hindmost” philosophy of the "every man for himself" approach?

  1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/09/08/1111560108.abstract

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