Birds like great tits and blue tits can learn to avoid toxic food by watching videos of each other, according to a new study.
Researchers found that showing a bird a video of another bird’s response as it ate an unpalatable food item allowed it to learn from a fellow being’s experience.
The team from the University of Cambridge found that blue tits learned best by watching their own species, while great tits learned just as well from great tits and blue tits.
The researchers say their findings, published in the journal Journal of Animal Ecology, show that some birds can learn from each other even if they do not belong to the same species, which might explain why different bird species flock together.
Dr Rose Thorogood, previously at the University of Cambridge’s department of zoology and now at the University of Helsinki in Finland – who led the research, said: “In our previous work using great tits as a ‘model predator’, we found that if one bird sees another being repulsed by a new type of prey, then both birds learn to avoid it in the future.
“By extending the research we now see that different bird species can learn from each other too.
“This increases the potential audience that can learn by watching others, and helps to drive the evolution of the prey species.”
The researchers tested 39 great tits and 48 blue tits, showing them videos of birds eating food they did not like.
The food consisted of small pieces of almond flakes soaked in a bitter-tasting solution.
The birds in the videos showed their disgust to the meal by vigorously wiping their beaks and shaking their heads.
Both blue tits and great tits ate fewer of the bitter-tasting almond flakes after watching the birds on TV reacting with disgust to the food.
Liisa Hamalainen, formerly a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s department of zoology who is now based at the Macquarie University in Australia and first author of the report, said: “Blue tits and great tits forage together and have a similar diet, but they may differ in their hesitation to try novel food.
“By watching others, they can learn quickly and safely which prey are best to eat.
“This can reduce the time and energy they invest in trying different prey, and also help them avoid the ill effects of eating toxic prey.”