Does a Bird’s Personality Influence its Social Life? Katerina Johnson Publishes Significant Research Paper

17th May 2017

Pembroke DPhil candidate, Katerina Johnson (Interdisciplinary Bioscience (BBSRC DTP) and Experimental Psychology), is the lead author of a new research paper that assesses whether a great tit breeding population is structured by personality.

The paper has received significant media attention and it is currently ranked fourth highest for impact out of over 3,000 articles published in the journal Animal Behaviour. Katerina was interviewed about her research on BBC Radio 4’s programme, Inside Science. Catch up here. She also recently participated in a live interview with BBC Radio Oxford.

The paper is titled ‘Male Great Tits Assort by Personality During the Breeding Season’. Katerina and her colleagues at the University of Oxford investigated whether the personality of birds influences their social lives; in particular, who they choose to nest near. The study involved analysing social network structure in a population of wild great tits at Wytham Woods, over six consecutive breeding seasons.

Summarising the project, Katerina said, 'We found that males, but not females, were picky about personalities, with males opting for like-minded neighbours. Our results emphasise that social interactions may play a key role in animal decisions.'

When deciding where to nest, it is much more than just a matter of location, Katerina continued: ‘Just like students choosing their flatmates, birds may pay more attention to who they share their living space with than simply location… Animal personalities can influence their social organisation and humans are likewise known to form social networks based on shared attributes including personality.’

Testing the personality of great tits, by introducing them to a new environment and measuring their response, the researchers uncovered that, whilst bold birds are keen to actively explore their new surroundings, shy birds tend to be more hesitant and cautious.

The tendency for males to associate with other males of similar personality may be particularly important during the breeding season when aggression peaks. Males defend their territories and compete for opportunities to mate with females, so shyer males may avoid setting up home near bolder, more aggressive individuals. Females, however, likely choose where to nest based on the attractive qualities of males.

Explaining the impact of this research, Katerina said: 'This novel research finding may also help explain the evolution of personality and why individuals in a population differ in their behaviour. Rather than one particular personality type being favoured by natural selection as ‘the best’, different behavioural strategies may be equally good depending on who you choose to be your friends and neighbours.'

Great tit nesting. Image by Nicole Milligan
Great tit nesting. Image by Nicole Milligan
Katerina Johnson on BBC Radio 4
Katerina Johnson on BBC Radio 4