New Evidence That City Birds Might Be More Intelligent Than Rural Ones

The urban environment makes them better problem-solvers, researchers say.

Image Louis Lefebvre
Louis Lefebvre

Many city dwellers have witnessed instances of seeming avian genius, from crows using traffic to crack nuts to a seagull opening bags of Doritos it had stolen from a convenience store. Now there’s evidence the urban environment itself might be making birds smarter, according to a study in Behavioral Ecology.

Researchers at Montreal’s McGill University wanted to see if there were intelligence differences between rural and urban bullfinches in the Barbados. So they assigned birds from both environments tasks measuring associative learning and problem solving. Birds from cities were good at performing tricky maneuvers like pulling and opening food jars. Country birds performed notably worse at these tasks.

The researchers say the urban birds displayed “bolder” temperaments and even had hardier constitutions than their rural counterparts. Why’s that surprising? Here’s more from McGill:

But, why do city birds have the edge over their country friends? They adapted to their urban environments enabling them to exploit new resources more favorably then their rural counterparts...

“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 Ph.D student in the Department of Biology and first author of the study published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

“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.”

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