People in groups have been shown to solve problems faster than individuals. Now researchers have found the same is true of house sparrows, and for birds too, diversity is key.
Andras Liker and Veronika Bokony of the University of Pannoniain Hungary tested the theory experimentally by presenting the sparrows with a bird feeder that had been modified with lids covering the food wells.The birds were familiar with the feeder, but had to figure out how to open the newly placed lids to get at the food. Liker, an evolutionary biologist, and Bokony,adoctoral student, observed the birds, in groups of six and in pairs,trying to get at the food. The groups of six opened four times as many lids, and did it 11 times faster than the birds in pairs.Their findings are described in an article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and featured in a New York Times story and scienceblogs.com.
They report that the greater success of groups was not only a result of a greater number of tries, but related to higher effectiveness of a group. House sparrows are very social birds, and like many social creatures they have a range of differing abilities and personalities. Liker and Bokony concluded that diversity accounted for the greater success of the group—a group of six is more likely to have members with differing skills and experiences, which increases the chance of bringing more approaches to the problem at hand.
Several studies have shown that group living benefits animals because they are better able to avoid predators and more successful finding food. Fish in shoals forage more efficiently than a few stragglers. Cooperation has been documented in many animals. Researchers from theUniversityofCambridgefound two rooks could team up to pull strings to reach as tray of food that was inaccessible to a lone bird.Less research has been done on problem solving by animals in larger groups, though even small groups of people have been shown to solve problems better than individuals.
Researchers from the University of Illinois found that three or more people solve intellectual puzzles faster than individuals or pairs. The pairs performed at the level of the more capable of the two individuals, but all groups of three or more performed better than any of the pairs, and all the groups performed better than their best member would have performed alone.Liker’s and Bokony’s research shows house sparrows in groups perform better than pairs in tackling new problems that require inventing new strategies.