The early bird catches the worm – for dinner!

Blue tit. Photo by Regis PerdriatFrom ScienceDaily

The ‘early bird’ strategy has been revealed by a team studying the winter foraging behaviour of birds in Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire. The researchers fitted over 2,000 birds with tiny PIT radio tags. They then used 101 feeders which detected these tags and captured the exact time individual birds found each feeder. By moving 36 of these feeders around the forest throughout the day, and recording the results, the team showed that birds gathered information about new food sources during the morning so that they can then eat it later in the day.

Coal tit. Photo by Regis PerdriatThe birds studied were a mixture of great tits, blue tits, marsh tits, coal tits and nuthatches. The full report, published this week, can be downloaded here

Damien Farine of Oxford University, who led the research, says that ‘birds have to store body-fat to avoid starving during the cold winter nights, but this can make them slower and less manoeuvrable so that they are more likely to be caught by predators’. ‘So there is a trade-off, where birds need to remain lean enough in order to ‘outrun’ their predators, or at least the next slowest bird, during the day but also store enough fat to survive each night.’

The team knew from previous studies at Wytham Woods that, when the predation risk appears high, birds delay putting on fat until late in the day. The researchers wanted to test the idea that, instead of simply ‘idly waiting’ until the afternoon, birds were actively seeking out new sources of food to work out where their next meal was coming from.

‘We used new tracking technologies to investigate how great tits, blue tits, and other common garden birds, balance the competing risks of predation and starvation’. ‘Our results show that these birds display very different patterns of food discovery in the morning and afternoon; very few new food sources were found during the afternoon, whereas nearly every new food source that we put out during the morning was quickly discovered. It supports the idea of an ‘early bird’ strategy of scouting for food early on so that they can return to feast a couple of hours before dusk in preparation for a long winter’s night.’

Sparrowhawk. Photo by Mick DrydenWinter is a tough time for small garden birds as not only is there less natural food available but their predators, such as the sparrowhawk, are keen to stock up their own fat reserves and so are hunting every day. The short days and long cold nights mean that small birds can lose around 10% of their body weight over a single night so that individuals failing to pile on the grams on even one day can starve and won’t be around to pass on their genes the next summer.

‘Because small birds can’t reproduce without surviving the winter they have evolved a complex set of behaviours that enables them to maximise their chance of both surviving predators and avoiding starvation,’ said Damien Farine ‘It’s a good example of how animals alter their behaviour to respond to constantly changing environmental conditions. It also shows how new technologies, like tiny PIT tags, are enabling us to explore questions about animal survival strategies at an unprecedented scale.’