A recent study conducted by a team of researchers from Canada's McGill University has uncovered that birds who live in urban environments are not just better at problem solving and more skilled in tasks that require innovation than their rural counterparts: they also have stronger immune systems!
The research, the first ever to examine the cognitive abilities of urban-dwelling birds with those of their country cousins, was spearheaded by Jean-Nicolas Audet, a Ph.D. student at the University’s Department of Biology. The team conducted their study in Barbados because it boasts a broad range of environments - All the way from populated modern cities to areas that are entirely rural. They began by capturing 53 Barbados bullfinches, from various parts of the Caribbean Island. The birds were then assigned several tasks. Some tested their associative learning skills while others were to observe how creative they were at problem-solving.
Some of the problem-solving tests entailed challenging the birds to open drawers or remove lids to get access to tasty treats. It turns out that city dwelling bullfinches are much smarter at devising clever solutions than their urban counterparts. While they are also much bolder, the urban birds did appear to be more cautious when exposed to unfamiliar things.
The results, which were published in the online journal, Behavioral Ecology, in March, did not surprise the researchers. After all, birds living in cities and towns do face many more challenges and dangers than those that live in the country. However, according to Audet, “We expected that there would be a trade-off and that the (bird's) immunity would be lower, just because we assumed that you can’t be good at everything."
But as it turns out, they were wrong! The city bullfinches proved to have better immunity and are therefore more resistant to diseases than the bullfinches that live in the countryside. The researchers hypothesize that this could be because the birds have had to adapt to the higher concentration of pathogens in the city air. As Audet says, “It seems that in this case, the urban birds have it all.” While additional studies need to be done to see if is this true for all city-dwelling birds, there is no reason to believe that the results would be any different.
Though this is the first time researchers have compared the cognitive abilities of birds living in different environments, it is not the first study to examine the differences between city and country dwellers. Previous research has shown that similar to the bullfinches, blackbirds in urban settings are more cautious than their rural counterparts. Researchers have also uncovered that city dwelling sparrows and blackbirds sing at a higher frequency to be heard over city noise and to make up for sound distortions caused by cityscapes. If only birds knew the advantages of living amongst humans, maybe more would move to cities!