Female brown-headed cowbirds perform spatial tasks better than males

Feb 28, 2014 by Paul Mayne
Credit: Douglas Keddy

Tired jokes about men, women and sense of direction have existed since the dawn of time. A new study at Western, however, has shown female brown-headed cowbirds perform spatial tasks better than their male counterparts – which is opposite what is typically found in mammals, including humans.

And, it's likely a matter of evolution.

The predominant theory of neuroecology proposes the brain – and our ways of thinking – adapt to solve specific ecological problems. In this case, the brain provides greater spatial abilities in one sex to improve the success of reproduction.

Female lay their eggs in other ' nests, rather than build their own, hijacking host nests before sunrise, when it is still dark. As only female cowbirds locate, monitor and revisit these nests, their reproductive success rests on their ability to navigate space and remember locations.

Once the eggs are laid, unwitting host birds are duped into incubating and raising the young cowbirds as their own – a strategy known as employed by cowbirds, European cuckoos and a few other groups of birds.

"We tested cowbirds for sex and seasonal differences in on a foraging task," said Mélanie Guigueno, a Biology PhD candidate, and lead author on the study. "Females made significantly fewer errors than males and took more direct paths to the rewarded location than males, leading us to believe female superiority in spatial search is an adaptation for brood parasitism in female cowbirds."

Guigueno conducted the study with undergraduate student, Danielle Snow, and professors Scott MacDougall-Shackleton and David Sherry at Western's Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR), a world-unique centre examining bird behaviour, physiology and neurobiology.

Research at AFAR helps explore how birds' neural and physiological systems respond to changes in the environment, and provides insight into avian migration, evolution, ecosystem health and the spread of disease.

The results were published today in the new issue of the Royal Society journal, Biology Letters.

Explore further: Endangered clouded leopard kittens born in Miami zoo

Related Stories

Female cowbirds prefer less intense male courtship displays

May 03, 2012

In most species, females prefer the most intense courtship display males can muster, but a new study finds that female cowbirds actually prefer less intense displays. The full results are published May 2 in the open access ...

'Alien' eggs benefit mockingbirds

Dec 07, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Mockingbirds rarely remove the ‘alien’ eggs parasitic cowbirds lay in their nests because keeping them dilutes the risk of their own eggs being attacked.

Birds find ways to avoid raising cuckoos' young

Apr 08, 2013

Some species of birds reproduce not by rearing their own young, but by handing that task on to adults of other species. Known as brood parasitism, this habit has been most thoroughly researched in the cuckoo. ...

Chickless birds guard nests of relatives

Dec 20, 2013

(Phys.org) —New research has solved a mystery as to why some birds choose not to reproduce, and instead help to guard the nests of their close relatives. This occurs in about nine percent of all bird species.

Desire to reproduce drives active nightlife of birds

Jan 22, 2014

For a non-nocturnal bird, the yellow-breasted chat spends a significant amount of time visiting other birds' territories during the night. A University of Illinois researcher who was studying birds' movement ...

Recommended for you

Clues to aging from long-lived lemurs

10 hours ago

When Jonas the lemur died in January, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, he was the oldest of his kind. A primate called a fat-tailed dwarf lemur, Jonas belonged to a long-lived clan. Dwarf ...

Cats relax to the sound of music

15 hours ago

According to research published today in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery by veterinary clinicians at the University of Lisbon and a clinic in the nearby town of Barreiro in Portugal, music is likew ...

Fruit flies crucial to basic research

17 hours ago

The world around us is full of amazing creatures. My favorite is an animal the size of a pinhead, that can fly and land on the ceiling, that stages an elaborate (if not beautiful) courtship ritual, that can ...

Crete's mystery croc killed by cold snap

17 hours ago

A man-eating crocodile that became an attraction on the Greek island of Crete last year after its mysterious appearance in a lake has died, probably of cold, an official said Monday.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.