Birds choose spring neighbors based on winter 'friendships'

September 13, 2016, University of Oxford
Tagged bird on twig. Credit: Molly Harwood

Great tits pick their spring breeding sites to be near their winter flockmates, according to new research into the social networks of birds from the University of Oxford.

The study shows that as mated pairs of settle down to breed in the spring, they establish their homes in locations close to their winter flockmates. They also arrange their territory boundaries so that their most-preferred winter 'friends' are their neighbours.

The findings give new insights into the of birds and demonstrate how social interactions can shape other aspects of wild animals' lives, such as the environmental conditions they will experience based on their choice of home location.

The research is published in the journal Ecology Letters.

Lead author Dr Josh Firth, of the University of Oxford's Department of Zoology, said: 'The great tits we study are a good general model for many other bird species. They form large flocks in the winter, when they're searching for food, and then each pair chooses a single set breeding site where they will be located throughout the spring as they build a nest and raise their chicks.

'We show that they appear to choose their spring breeding sites to stay close to their winter flockmates. Not only do they nest closest to the birds they held the strongest winter social bonds with, they also appear to arrange their territories so that they share home boundaries with those birds.'

Dr Firth added: 'As well as telling us about the birds' social behaviour, this also has interesting implications for other aspects of biology. For instance, where an animal's "home" is determines the environmental factors they experience, such as weather conditions. Therefore, as they appear to base their location choices around their social bonds, this indicates that their previous social associations can underpin the environment and conditions they will be subjected to in future.'

The study focused on the radio-frequency identification (RFID)-tagged wild great tit population in Wytham Woods, the University of Oxford's research woodland near the city. Using data gathered from equipping thousands of birds with these tags to record their winter social interactions and spring nesting box choices over a three-year period, the researchers were able to determine which birds were flockmates during the and, subsequently, where they settled in relation to each other in the spring.

Dr Firth added: 'There may be benefits of choosing breeding locations based on previous social associations. For instance, we know that familiar are more likely to cooperate in fending off predators, and it may also reduce the amount of energy expended on competitive interactions, if individuals display less aggressive behaviour towards familiar neighbours.'

Explore further: Wild birds choose love over food

More information: 'Social carry-over effects underpin trans-seasonally linked structure in a wild bird population' Ecology Letters. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12669

Related Stories

Wild birds choose love over food

November 12, 2015

Wild birds will sacrifice access to food in order to stay close to their partner over the winter, according to a study by Oxford University researchers.

Divorce in birds is affected by their social group

October 14, 2015

Whether a pair of birds will divorce or stay together after they first breed is influenced by the social environment in which the relationship is formed, according to a new study by researchers from Oxford University.

Mobs rule for great tit neighbours

April 27, 2012

( -- Great tits are more likely to join defensive mobs with birds in nearby nests that are ‘familiar neighbours’ rather than new arrivals, Oxford University research has found.

Birds time breeding to hit 'peak caterpillar'

May 25, 2015

When oaks burst into life in spring populations of oak-leaf-eating caterpillars boom: this offers a food bonanza for caterpillar-munching birds looking to raise a family.

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Ultra-sharp images make old stars look absolutely marvelous

March 21, 2019

Using high-resolution adaptive optics imaging from the Gemini Observatory, astronomers have uncovered one of the oldest star clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy. The remarkably sharp image looks back into the early history of ...

When more women make decisions, the environment wins

March 21, 2019

When more women are involved in group decisions about land management, the group conserves more—particularly when offered financial incentives to do so, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study published ...


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.