Have you ever been met by blank stares when trying to convince “non-bird” people that your pet has a unique personality? You might be believed if you’re referring to a parrot, but a canary or other finch…not likely. However, a recent (April, 2011) study has confirmed that Greenfinches, Carduelis chloris, do indeed exhibit widely-varying personalities. My experience, and that of countless other bird-keepers, convinces me that this is true for other species as well.
By measuring stress levels in the blood of Greenfinches, researchers at the University of York (UK) established that differences in behavior were directly correlated to distinct personality types.
Brightly-colored objects (plastic cookie-cutters) were placed in the finches’ food bowls and their reactions were observed. Some birds approached the bowls within seconds, while others took up to 30 minutes to work up their courage.
Next the researchers took blood samples from the birds, in order to test for oxygen toxins, which are released in response to stressful situations.
The shyest birds had the highest levels of toxins, while the boldest individuals had low levels. The stress-prone, shy birds also had poor defenses against the effects of the damaging toxins; the immune systems of the curious birds were more effective.
Personality and Survival
It’s difficult to predict the survival values, if any, of the differing personalities. Shy birds might easily become ill due to the effects of stress, but they would also likely be adept at avoiding predators and other dangers. Aggressive birds might be more successful at reproduction, but could perhaps more easily be taken by hawks and other enemies.
Implications for Bird Keepers
This research shows that we must pay careful attention to the specific needs of our individual pets… an environment suitable for one Amazon Parrot or Canary, for example, might be detrimental to another.
Also, the work has important implications for breeders, as reproduction always shuts down in stressful situations. Stress-mitigation has been critical in the breeding of many of the rare birds with which I’ve worked, from California Condors to hummingbirds (please see photos). In the pet trade, most of us would know to treat shy birds such as the Banded Pitta (please see photo) with kid gloves…but we should bear in mind that even among Cockatiels and others known to adjust well to captive life, there will be stress-prone individuals.
Other Personality Traits
Other studies have revealed that birds are surprisingly complicated when it comes to personality and individual behavior. Some have shown that birds exhibit empathy towards cage-mates, while others established that stress in the nest exerts effects on behavior years later. Please see the articles below for details.
Green finch image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Marek Szczepanek
Purple throated hummingbird image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by charlesjsharpe
Banded Pitta image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Doug janson