City birds healthier, smarter than their country cousins

Jean-Nicolas Audet is proud as a peacock his idea to pit urban bird brains against country ones yielded such surprising results.

'The urban birds have it all,' says McGill PhD candidate Jean-Nicolas Audet

The urban Barbados bullfinch is one of many bird species which keeps a watchful eye on outdoor diners. (Postdlf/Wikipedia)

A McGill doctoral candidate in biology, Jean-Nicolas Audet, is proud as a peacock that his idea to pit urban bird brains against country ones yielded such surprising results.

He and his fellow researchers, Simon Ducatez and Louis Lefebvre, tested more than 50 Barbados bullfinches captured from various parts of the Caribbean island – some from urban environments, others from wild areas mostly left untouched.

The urban birds proved to be smarter, bolder and healthier than those in rural areas.

Bird in the city worth 2 in the bush

Audet said he was inspired to test the Barbados bullfinch after being hounded by the birds at a restaurant terrace in Barbados.

"Barbados bullfinch are always watching and trying to steal your sandwich," Audet told CBC News.

"I was really interested in studying how they develop this way in cities."

The team of three researchers spent months at McGill's Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados testing the birds' problem-solving abilities and temperament.

They found that the city birds had adapted to become better at problem solving – such as opening drawers to find food.


Not just smarter, healthier too

Audet believed the tradeoff would be that city birds would have compromised immune systems.

"We assumed that you can't be good at everything," Audet said.

But the city birds proved first in the pecking order for good health, as well.

Not only were the urban Barbados bullfinches more intelligent, but their immune systems were better too.

"The urban birds have it all."

Audet and his team's study is published in the current issue of the Oxford journal Behavioral Ecology.