Birds and humans have similar ’shopping’ habits

Feeding birds display similar habits to human consumers shopping for food, according to research published in the current edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

A two-year study has discovered it is possible to influence hummingbirds’ choice of food by changing the options available to them, in the same way supermarkets can manipulate customers’ preferences by clever positioning of products.

The study is published in the current edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society. Dr Melissa Bateson, of the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and a member of the research team, said the findings shed new light on the way animals, including humans, make ’consumer’ choices – and are therefore likely to be of use to marketing theorists as well as naturalists.

The technique can also potentially be applied to conservation projects, such as those focused on protecting certain species of flower, said Dr Bateson, a Royal Society Research Fellow, who will present the findings of this and other projects at a symposium in Berlin next week.

The research team, comprising animal behaviour experts from the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Edinburgh in the UK and the University of Lethbridge, Canada, repeated an experiment on hummingbirds originally carried out by marketing experts on humans. This showed that supermarkets influenced the choices of around a third of shoppers when they changed the range of products open to them.

Central to the experiment was getting consumers to choose between two competing brands and then seeing how the introduction of a new product altered their choice. It found that, after introduction of a carefully selected ‘decoy’ product which enhanced the attractiveness of the ‘target’ brand – the one supermarkets wanted shoppers to buy – around a third of customers’ switched their preference accordingly. The marketing experts called this the ‘Asymmetrically Dominatedant Effect’.

Dr Bateson and her colleagues studied 12 rufous humming birds during their breeding period in the Canadian Rocky Mountains from May to July. The birds, which feed on the nectar of the flowers in the valley, need to eat almost constantly due to their high metabolism, and they usually always return to the same area for their meals.

The researchers created a mock flower bed on a perspex sheet containing several small feeding wells filled with ‘nectar’ – sucrose solution of varying quantities and concentrations. Coloured paper, to imitate petals, was placed around the feeding wells. The colour of the petals indicated the make-up of the nectar concentration and volume of the nectar contained in the flower.

Under normal circumstances, hummingbirds prefer flowers containing sweeter or larger volumes of nectar, as this provides them with more energy.

However, the introduction of decoys altered their choices, making another, ‘target’ flower seem more attractive. Preference for the target flower increased, regardless of nectar volume or concentration.

Dr Bateson, a member of the Evolution and Behaviour Research Group at the University, said:

“This research shows that the birds, like humans, are actually more irrational than we previously thought. They are prepared to make an instant decision based on the choices they have available at the time.

“Until now experts thought that birds would compute which source of food was going to provide them with the maximum amount of energy, taking variables such as volume and concentration into consideration, but our research suggests that, like humans, hummingbirds can be influenced by the range of options available.”

“The findings have implications for a wide range of biological problems involving animal decision-making. For example, choice tests are regularly used in animal welfare research to determine conditions preferred by captive animals, but the current findings suggest that the preferences of animals may be dependent on the range of options offered in the choice test.

“The findings could also be of relevance to research in ecology and conservation where scientists need to understand the effects on the behaviour of foragers and pollinators of adding or subtracting a prey species from the environment.

“The technique can also potentially be applied to conservation projects, such as those focused on protecting certain species of flower. ”

“Hummingbirds have an important role in pollinating flowers. If there are two different types of flowers in an area and one is the focus of a conservation effort, introducing a decoy species which enhances the attractiveness of the target flower may help achieve the conservation goal.”

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and The Royal Society.

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