Avian cognition in a changing world
Date: 9 March 2020
University of Exeter
PhD in Biological Sciences
Humans are altering the natural environment at an unprecedented rate, with profound consequences for non-human animals. However, species differ in how they respond to these ecological changes. Understanding the responses of wildlife to environmental change is vital to conserve biodiversity and mitigate anthropogenic impacts. Behaviour ...
Humans are altering the natural environment at an unprecedented rate, with profound consequences for non-human animals. However, species differ in how they respond to these ecological changes. Understanding the responses of wildlife to environmental change is vital to conserve biodiversity and mitigate anthropogenic impacts. Behaviour can often act as a rapid adaptation to ecological change, and is influenced by an organism’s ability to acquire and process information from their environment. Despite the importance of cognition in shaping behaviour, little is known about the role of cognition in allowing some species to thrive in human-dominated habitats. In this thesis, I examine how the cognitive abilities of wild jackdaws allow these birds to cope with the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Specifically, I focus on the need to navigate a dynamic social environment, and the need to learn about anthropogenic threats. Firstly, I investigate how jackdaws track their social environment by recognising conspecifics and their relationships. In Chapter 3, I demonstrate that jackdaws individually recognise the contact calls of their breeding partner, but I find no evidence of vocal discrimination beyond the pair bond. In Chapter 4, I use infidelity simulations to investigate whether jackdaws track changes to prevailing social relationships, although I find no evidence that jackdaws respond to relationship information in this experimental context. Secondly, I investigate how jackdaws’ cognitive abilities shape their behaviour during encounters with people, allowing birds to avoid danger whilst exploiting anthropogenic resources. I test the commonly-held preconception that jackdaws identify people carrying shotguns as dangerous (Chapter 5), but find no evidence that jackdaws use objects being carried by people to inform their escape decisions in this case. I also demonstrate that jackdaws learn socially about dangerous people (Chapter 6). Throughout these experiments, jackdaws differed considerably in their behaviour, which may influence individual success in anthropogenic habitats. In Chapter 7, I find that individual jackdaws differ consistently in their responses to human disturbance, but that these differences do not appear to impact reproductive success. Together, my findings highlight the importance of fundamental behavioural and cognitive research in predicting animals’ responses to environmental change.
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