Birders can rejoice as a study recently published out of the University of Ottawa found bird feeders are not making black-capped chickadees lazier.
The animal cognition study, by researchers Megan Thompson, a master’s student in biology, and Julie Morand-Ferron, her supervisor, provided a rare look into the memories of the birds.
“There has not been that many studies on how animals learn and memorize things,” Morand-Ferron said.
Morand-Ferron said the black-capped chickadees have a system called caching, where they hoard food and burrow it in hundreds of different locations — meaning they need a spatial memory.
This provided the basis of the study, looking to see how well urban birds — who have a much larger access to bird feeders — compare to rural birds. The study took 100 chickadees from the region and placed them through spatial memory tests before returning them to their habitat.
The tests included studying how the birds found food at one of the 60 caching sites on artificial trees. The birds would then leave the room and all the sites were hidden by a small cotton ball. The birds would then return 30 minutes later and needed to remember where the food was — each time they pulled out a cotton ball in the wrong place, it was considered a spatial memory “error.” Morand-Ferron said the study only looked at the birds’ short-term memory.
Morand-Ferron and Thompson said that before the study, they predicted urban birds would fare worse than their rural counterparts as the larger access to bird feeders would make them lazier at remembering where they stored their food. However, the results found there was no difference in memory between rural and urban birds.
“There doesn’t seem to be that laziness that we were predicting with the city birds caching less,” she said. “There’s no significant difference between the urban and the rural birds and how much they cache or on their performance on the spatial and memory tests.”
Morand-Ferron said the results could be a win for bird-feeder enthusiasts as it found black-capped chickadees may not be entirely dependent on humans and their feeders.
Bob Volks, owner of Gilligallou Bird Inc., a bird-feeder store in Almonte, said he is happy to hear that his service is not having a harmful effect on the birds he feeds.
“As this study has proven, there isn’t a dependency — birds are just driven as hunters and gatherers,” he said.
Volks said bird feeders provide a tremendous service as they allow people to connect with nature.
“Birding is a soulful act because we are interacting with nature,” he said. “A lot of times people get detached from nature.”
Thompson said in an email that despite the results this is only a study of black-capped chickadees in the Ottawa region and a lot more research needs to be done.
“Bird feeding activities still affect other aspects of chickadee ecology, such as their physiology or responses to novelty. Bird feeding may also affect other birds differently and may promote dependency in other species, but more research will be needed to explore this possibility,” she wrote.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019