City Birds May Be Smarter Than Rural Ones

Finches from the city are more intelligent than birds from the countryside, new research suggests. McGill University

Living in the city and the country require different skills—for humans, of course, but also for birds. Researchers testing the intelligence of urban versus rural birds found that the former were smarter. Unexpectedly, the city birds' immune systems were also stronger.

To come up with this finding, scientists from McGill University in Montreal looked at Barbados bullfinches (Loxigilla barbadensis), a small brownish bird that is the island's only endemic avian species and feeds primarily on seeds. Scientists took 53 birds from urban and rural areas of the island, conducted a variety of cognitive tests and then released them.

"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 rural birds," says Jean-Nicolas Audet, a doctoral student and first author of the study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, in a statement.

"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," as both traits are costly, requiring a fair amount of energy and evolutionary time to develop, Audet said. "It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all."

Tests that the scientists conducted on the birds included having them access food by performing motor actions like pulling a stick or removing a lid, tasks at which the urban birds did better.

The study results make sense given that food resources are more predictable and static in the wild. But in the city, while birds like finches can find a wider variety—and more variable—food sources, there are also more diverse and unpredictable sources of danger (think: cars, cats, dogs, irate people). There are also likely more pathogens, which may explains the better immunity.

The study only tested 53 birds found in rural and urban parts of a single island country, however, so it may not apply to different kinds of birds in different places.