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City birds are smarter, healthier than country birds, say scientists

After comparing rural and urban Barbados bullfinches, a team of McGill University researchers have concluded that city birds can 'have it all.'

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A flock of birds fly above harbour cranes swathed in seasonal fog in Cape Town, March 18, 2016.

Mike Hutchings

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City birds are smarter and healthier than their rural counterparts, according to a new study published by a team of McGill University researchers in the journal Behavioral Ecology. 

Jean-Nicolas Audet, lead author of the study and PhD student in the school's department of biology, said he was inspired to test his hypothesis after being surrounded by Barbados bullfinches at a restaurant in Barbados. 

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“Barbados bullfinches are always watching and trying to steal your sandwich,” he tells CBC News. “I was really interested in studying how they develop this way in cities.”

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Audet and his fellow McGill researchers, Simon Ducatez and Louis Lefebvre, tested bullfinches from a range of sites, assessing their problem solving skills, color discrimination, boldness, neophobia, and immunity. 

The results? Barbados bullfinches don’t sacrifice intelligence or health to live in cities. In fact, the city birds in Audet’s experiment had it all. 

“We found that not only were birds from urbanized areas better at innovative problem-solving tasks than bullfinches from rural environments, but that surprisingly urban birds also had a better immunity than real birds,” Audet tells the McGill Newsroom in a press release. “Since urban birds were better at problem-solving, we expected that there would be a trade-off and that the immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can’t be good at everything (in fact, both traits are costly). It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all.” 

More specifically, the urbanized birds were bolder, had stronger immunity, and were better at problem solving than their rural counterparts. However, the urbanized birds were also more neophobic, or fearful of new objects, than the rural bullfinches and they were equally competent in color-discrimination learning. 

“The scientists put the birds through a series of tests,” explains Gizmodo’s Esther Inglis-Arkell, “which included them figuring out how to get birdseed by opening drawers or sliding jars out from under shelves using long handles; distinguishing two different colored buttons (one dispensed food) and overcoming cautiousness about a new object in their cage.” 

But Audet and his co-authors are not the only researchers working to dispel assumptions of the ‘bird brain.’ 

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Crows – long recognized as one of the smartest bird species – have sharp memories, can remember a human face and can pass on information to their offspring. Recent studies show that crows have the capacity to make tools, and even have an understanding of death, gathering around their deceased, apparently in an effort to avoid the same fate themselves

And in 2012, scientists discovered special nerve cells in pigeons’ brains that can detect the intensity and direction of magnetic fields. Most recently British engineers have utilized pigeons’ impeccable sense of direction to monitor London’s air quality