The study found that birds’ nests express their unique style and past experiences
While walking through a town or city, you will encounter buildings of a variety of shapes and sizes. These unique styles exist in part because the buildings were constructed by different architects, engineers, and builders.
Birds are also architects, engineers, and builders. Our research published in iScienceHe finds that, similar to human architecture, individual birds build their nests in their own unique style. Experienced birds build in a more consistent manner and use fewer physical resources than inexperienced birds.
Architecture influences our daily lives, allowing us to adapt to and thrive in different climates. Humans build different structures to achieve different goals: farms to grow and store food, castles and skyscrapers to display wealth, and homes for shelter or as a place to raise a family.
The same applies to other species. Bees build hives and honeycombs to store and protect food. Spiders spin their webs to catch prey. Beavers build dams to create a swimming pool. Many bird species build nests for shelter or to raise their chicks.
Architecture allows animals to shape their environments to better meet specific needs.
Human structures look different, even when those structures share a similar purpose. This may reflect differences in culture and available resources.
In Western societies, homes tend to be cube-shaped made of stone, wood, and glass. Plains indigenous peoples make conical tipis from wood and bison hides. The Inuit people use ice and snow to make spherical igloos. The Maasai people of East Africa build cylindrical huts from earth, grass, and cow dung.
There are differences in architectural style between individuals within the same culture using the same materials.
Visualize your home: size and shape of each room, location of doors and windows, arrangement of furniture. Now compare your visual layout to the layout of a friend’s house. They will likely look very different, as humans have an individual difference in architectural style.
Our research suggests that the same is true for animal architects: animals also build structures with individual variation in architectural style.
Birds are among the most famous builders in the animal world. Many bird species build nests to create warm, safe environments in which to incubate their eggs and raise chicks. Nest building is an essential task that individuals must complete to reproduce successfully.
Our team, the Animal Cognition Research Group in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alberta, conducted an experiment to test whether birds build nests in their own individual style.
We studied zebra finches, small songbirds native to Australia. Zebra finches have been bred in captivity for years and are popular in pet stores and scientific research. These birds are ideal for our test, as males build many nests in short periods of time using a range of materials.
We measured the sizes and shapes of multiple nests built by the same zebra finches. A comparison of nests built by the same male found similarities in style. Comparing nests built by different males found differences in style. This shows that individuals build nests in their own unique and repetitive style.
Psychology of style
The minds of human architects can be studied by analyzing the style in which they build. This gives insights into their understanding of technology and its cultural influences or social values.
Some ancient structures, such as the Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, and Mayan temples, are aligned with the sun and stars. This indicates that ancient architects had the ability to plan and implement designs accurately and in great detail. It also suggests that celestial bodies held some significance for these cultures, perhaps for mapping the landscape or the passage of the seasons.
An individual architect may specialize in building structures in a particular style, such as Gothic, Art Deco, Victorian, or Brutalist. Their style may change over time as the architect learns and refines his or her skills through experience.
These examples illustrate how the psychology of style in human architects can be analyzed. We wanted to investigate the psychology of style, specifically learning from experience, in our zebra finches.
Style and experience
We provided one group of zebra finches with five nest-building training, providing each male with opportunities to learn from this nest-building experience. The second group of zebra finches had no construction training. These males had not built a nest before the experiment began. Both groups then built nests so we could compare the nest pattern built by the two groups.
Experienced birds had a more consistent nest style and used less material compared to inexperienced birds. This suggests that learning opportunities influence nest pattern.
The practice of nest building allows birds to develop motor skills and better handle materials. Birds also remember previous nest results and will repeat successful design elements.
Individual style may develop from differences in learning opportunities. Maintaining style can be helpful. It may be beneficial to create consistent nests while using fewer resources, especially if the pattern is successful or resources are limited.
We can learn a lot about how human and animal architects adapt and respond to their surroundings and culture by studying the structures they build. Our research also shows that home isn’t just in the heart, it’s also in the brain.
Benjamin A. Whittaker et al., Zebra finches have a style: nest shape is repeatable and related to experience, iScience (2023). doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2023.108194
Introduction to conversation
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