Loved-Up Birds Sacrifice Food In Order To Be With Their Mate

Great tits choose to stick together over winter, even if this means giving up their access to food. Shirley Clarke, Fordingbridge Camera Club via Wikimedia Commons

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but it seems that some wild birds may be prepared to forgo food in order to be with their mate. In an experiment conducted by researchers at Oxford University, great tits displayed a tendency to sacrifice access to birdfeed rather than become separated from their partner during the winter, a time when these birds normally try to improve body condition in preparation of reproduction.

A number of great tits at Wytham Woods, England, were fitted with sensors that ensured mating pairs would not be able to access the same electronically-operated feeding stations as one another. This meant that, in order to obtain the food, the birds would have to split up and visit different stations. However, researchers at the university’s Department of Zoology noticed that the birds actually accompanied each other on their respective feeding trips, causing each partner to spend considerable amounts of time waiting outside the stations they could not access while their partner entered.

The findings have been published in the journal Current Biology, with lead researcher Josh Firth explaining in a statement that the birds’ decisions were “shaped around gaining the long-term benefits of maintaining their key relationships.” These relations are of vital importance to great tits, since they are known to raise chicks as a pair, at least until their young fly the nest approximately 20 days after hatching.

In light of these results, the researchers suggest that social relationships should be considered when attempting to explain behavioral variations at the individual level, since these fundamental connections play a key role in determining how social animals make decisions.

Great tits, which are common in woodlands across Europe and Asia, often flock with other birds such as blue tits over the winter. As a result, the researchers noted that in order for partners to remain together, they were forced to spend time with each other’s flock-mates, even if they may not normally associate with those particular individuals. Firth therefore concludes that, rather like humans, “the company an individual bird keeps may depend on their partner’s preferences as well as their own.”

Previous research has shown that wild birds are far from the only animal to prioritize mating over feeding. For instance, a study published in the same journal last year revealed how male nematode worms suppress their ability to locate food in order to maximize their ability to home in on a mate. Similarly, in spite of what the proverb may say, another recent study highlighted the way in which human males are more than willing to have sex on an empty stomach, thanks to the activation of certain neurons that suppress hunger when love is in the air.

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