City Birds Are Better Problem-Solvers Than Country Birds


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

House finch

This house finch is enjoying its natural habitat in Saguaro National Park, but if it lived in an urban area it might be able to solve problems, like finding a place to perch not loaded with prickles. Judith Lienert.

Conflicts between urban dwellers and country residents are probably as old as the first city. These divisions are exerting increasing political influence, with the US elections and Brexit and the Turkish referendum showing strong urban-rural splits. Here at IFLScience we love all our readers and don't want to take sides, but city-dwellers are entitled to a little of their smugness, at least if they're finches.

Although native to the deserts of Mexico and the United states, house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) have adapted well to city living, even in climates much colder and wetter than their original habitat. Having trained humans to supplement their wild diet of seeds and fruits, the finches are thriving.


Arizona State University researchers tested the problem-solving skills of 82 juvenile house finches collected from two sites in nearby parks, as well as two locations in the Phoenix area. Phoenix is near the heartland of the finch's original range but now one of America's largest urban areas.

Wherever they were from, the birds were kept for two weeks in identical rooms on the university campus before being tested one at a time on their capacity to open a food-containing tin. Birds were tagged and tested again five weeks later. Over this time the birds were exposed to different levels of human disturbance.

In the journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, PhD student Meaghan Cook reports that urban birds were able to deal with exposure to humans without it seriously impacting their problem-solving skills. On the other hand, birds from rural areas that were bothered by people during the period between the two trials were so thrown off by exposure to humans they completely failed to open the tin on the second trial.

It doesn't do to read too much into this study. For a start, the undisturbed rural birds did much better on tin opening than those who had been bothered by humans in the interim. This suggests it is not urban versus rural dwelling per se that affects problem-solving, but the exposure to new and frightening experiences. There is also the little matter of not drawing conclusions about human behavior from animals more closely related to a Tyrannosaurus than to us.


Nevertheless, Cook noted: "The findings suggest that city birds have habituated and/or adapted to typically benign human presence, but rural birds (with less frequent interactions with humans) may still perceive humans as threatening, which then interferes with their ability to solve a problem.” So while it may not have much to say about who makes the smarter voting choices, the study does confirm that, even weeks later, frightening encounters can throw you off your game.


  • tag
  • problem-solving,

  • urban-rural divide,

  • urban species,

  • house finches