Love-drunk. Love-sick. Love-starved?

Researchers at the University of Oxford have found an interesting behavioral trait in Great tits, which seems to go against survival instinct. They appear to pass up on food in favor of staying close to their mate.  In the study, ethologists, animal behavioral scientists, rigged a feeder to prevent mating pairs from feeding simultaneously. The birds were radio-tagged and if they both tried to enter the same feeder, the source of seed was shut off. Male and female birds had to feed at different stations, however one part of the couple spent more time at their partners feeder, even though they couldn’t access the food. So why, when forced to forage away from their mates did the bird choose love over a meal?

Image: Sergey Yeliseev

Image: Sergey Yeliseev

Scientists were surprised by this finding. They predicted that the unfed bird would fly off in search of an alternate food source however they chose to stay alongside their lover. Is this another case of love induced irrationality so well documented in Greek tragedy and Shakespeare? The scientists don’t think so. They suggest that the short term sacrifice of staying with their partner is beneficial in the long term.  The long term benefit of maintaining and investing in a mating relationship includes habitat stability, help raising chicks and a future reproductive partner. This ‘planning for the future’ is a complex behavioral trait that goes beyond the innate instinct for survival.  The results also suggest that the Great tit values an association with the partner’s flock-mates providing protective, foraging and social advantages.

Interestingly the birds were able to learn that, in the process of recognizing the mate’s identification tag, the feeder remained unlocked for a few seconds after the allowed partner left the station. The pairs took advantage of this technical fault and developed a ‘scrounging’ behavior. The unpermitted individual swooped in as its partner flew off quickly grab seed. This behavior was enabled by the bird’s partner unlocking the station suggesting it may be a co-operative strategy. So, next time your partner gives you that extra slice of cake… it may not be such an innocent gesture.

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