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Study: Male Great Tits Choose Their Neighbors Based on Personality

Male great tits (Parus major) choose neighbors with similar personalities to their own, according to new research from the University of Oxford, UK.

Johnson et al assessed whether a great tit breeding population is structured by personality. Image credit: Shirley Clarke / Fordingbridge Camera Club / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Johnson et al assessed whether a great tit breeding population is structured by personality. Image credit: Shirley Clarke / Fordingbridge Camera Club / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Lead author Katerina Johnson, a doctoral student in the University of Oxford’s Departments of Zoology and Experimental Psychology, and co-authors investigated whether the personality of birds influences their social lives — in particular who they choose to nest near.

The study involved analyzing social network structure in a population of wild great tits at Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, UK, over six consecutive breeding seasons.

“We found that males, but not females, were picky about personalities, with males opting for like-minded neighbors,” Johnson said.

“Our results emphasize that social interactions may play a key role in animal decisions.”

This tendency for males to associate with other males of similar personality may be particularly important during the breeding season when aggression peaks.

Males fiercely defend their territories and compete for opportunities to mate with females and so shyer males may avoid setting up home near bolder, more aggressive individuals.

Females, however, likely choose where to nest based on the attractive qualities of males.

The results also showed that this personality assortment amongst males was not affected by local environmental conditions.

“Just like students choosing their flatmates, birds may pay more attention to who they share their living space with than simply location,” Johnson said.

“Animal personalities can influence their social organization and humans are likewise known to form social networks based on shared attributes including personality.”

Just like us, animals display individual behavioral differences that are consistent over time and stable across different situations, and so may be thought of as personality traits.

The researchers tested the personality of great tits by introducing them to a new environment and measuring how they responded.

Whilst bold birds are keen to actively explore their new surroundings, shy birds tend to be more hesitant and cautious.

“This novel research finding may also help explain the evolution of personality and why individuals in a population differ in their behavior,” Johnson noted.

“Rather than one particular personality type being favored by natural selection as ‘the best,’ different behavioral strategies may be equally good depending on who you choose to be your friends and neighbors.”

“Perhaps by nesting closer to others of similar character, this may improve a bird’s chances of survival and passing on their genes to the next generation.”

“For example, although having bold neighbors may result in more skirmishes between males, they might also gain a shared benefit by more effectively repelling intruders.”

The results will be published in the June 2017 issue of the journal Animal Behaviour.

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Katerina V.-A. Johnson et al. 2017. Male great tits assort by personality during the breeding season. Animal Behaviour 128: 21-32; doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.04.001

This article is based on text provided by the University of Oxford.