Bird's head colour determines its personality
6 June 2012
UK researchers have shown that highly sociable Australian birds, called Gouldian finches, have different personalities according to the colour of their heads.
The team, led by Leah Williams and Dr Claudia Mettke-Hofmann from Liverpool John Moores University, found that red-headed birds have aggressive tendencies, while those with black heads are bold and take more risks than their peers.
This is only the second study to show a strong link between personality and colour.
Gouldian finches. Copyright Nigel Jacques.
"We think that head colour is used as a signal of personality to other birds in the flock, so they know who to associate with," says Williams, who studied the birds as part of her PhD project.
Williams and animal personality expert Mettke-Hofmann teamed up with Dr Andrew King from the Royal Veterinary College to find out if colour reflects personality in the endangered Gouldian finch.
Gouldian finches have extremely colourful plumage with either red, black, or - rarely - yellow-coloured heads. They live in open, subtropical woodland, where they nest in loose colonies, feeding mainly on grass seeds.
Williams, King and Mettke-Hofmann decided to measure three aspects of personality - aggression, boldness and risk-taking - in the finches.
They tested the birds' tendency to investigate an unfamiliar object, in this case grey or brown bundles of string dangling from a perch, to find out how bold they were. To test for risk-taking behaviour, they presented both kinds of birds with a cardboard cut-out silhouette of a typical predator like a hawk.
For aggression, they put a feeder out for two hungry birds, but the feeder only had room for one bird to eat. They wanted to see which birds would demonstrate aggressive behaviour to get at the food on offer.
They found that red-headed birds are quicker to displace each other, or display threatening behaviour with an open beak than the black-headed finches are, exhibiting a fiery personality.
They also found that birds with black heads returned to feeders after being shown the hawk silhouette much sooner than red-headed birds did, revealing a risk-taking personality. Black-headed birds were also more likely to approach and touch the string before a red-headed finch would.
"We think that having head colour reflect personality means birds can more easily choose who to associate with, and who to avoid in large flocks," says King.
The researchers say their findings may explain differences in colours. "Different colours may mean each bird uses different behavioural tactics," says Mettke-Hofmann.
"The next step is to find out which birds associate with which. Do reds hang out with reds or blacks and do they do better for that?" asks Williams.
The study was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
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Scientists' contact details:
Leah Williams (primary contact)
Liverpool John Moores University
Tel: 0151 231 2442
Mob: 07791 038837
Dr Andrew King
The Royal Veterinary College
Tel: 01707 666988
Mob: 07786 033412
Dr Claudia Mettke-Hofmann
Liverpool John Moores University
Tel: 0151 231 2247
Mob: 07411 963600
1. This press release is based on the paper 'Colourful characters: head colour reflects personality in a social bird, the Gouldian finch, Erythrura gouldiae', by Leah J Williams, Andrew J King, Claudia Mettke-Hofmann, published online in Animal Behaviour on 6 June 2012.
2. The Royal Veterinary College is the UK's first and largest veterinary school and a constituent College of the University of London. In the recent Research Assessment Exercise the RVC ranked as England's best school in the Agriculture, Veterinary & Food Science unit of assessment, for institutions whose research is exclusively veterinary related, with 55% of its submitted academics viewed as producing 'world class' and 'internationally excellent' research. The college provides support for veterinary and related professions through its three referral hospitals, diagnostic services and continuing professional development courses.
3. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing world-class research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. It coordinates some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on earth, and much more. NERC receives around £300m a year from the government's science budget, which it uses to fund independent research and training in universities and its own research centres.
Press release: 12/12
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