• A male zebra finch examines material before deciding what to use to build his nest. (Photo: Alexis Breen)

Scientists used to think birds build nests that look like the one they were born in — generation after generation. But new research from the University of Alberta and the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland proves that assumption wrong, instead identifying a bird’s early adolescence as the key point in time that affects nest creation. 

“Adult birds will use social information when they come to build their nest, so we wanted to know how young birds learn,” says Lauren Guillette, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Alberta and lead researcher on the project.

The researchers thought there might be a specific point in development when the nest building skill is learned. To identify when in development that might be, they allowed zebra finches to hatch into nests and grow up semi-normally, says Guillette. Then as adults, the birds built their nests without any outside training or direction. 

“These birds, based on what we’ve known so far, should have built nests similar to the nest they were born into. They didn’t,” says Guillette. 

They found that the presence of an adult bird during early adolescence — from 60-90 days old — is important for how a young bird learns. Birds who had adult males present during this time “overwhelmingly” chose to build nests of the colour they were in at the time. 

“If [the bird] is playing with that material but there’s no adult around, it has no effect,” says Guillette. “There’s something magical and special about having an adult around, that seems to affect what colour [a bird] builds when it’s an adult.”

These nests were built by zebra finches over the course of the research study. (Photo: Alexis Breen)

The adult present didn’t do anything in particular — they weren’t trained to play with the nesting material or even interact with the juvenile bird. Guillette and PhD student Alexis Breen determined it was simply their presence that caused the social environment to have such a lasting impact. 

“We don’t know why … so there’s more work to be done there,” says Guillette. “We’re asking a lot of questions about social learning — including what’s so social about social learning.”

There’s an assumption that what’s been learned can be applied to other bird species, as nest building is a good comparative system. 

Guillette says studying birds and understanding how they know how to do things is “fundamental science,” and that by looking at social learning in other species people can understand more about how humans use social learning to develop. 

“If we understand how other animals think and learn, we can apply that to ourselves. The social learning aspect of it, about how humans have become humans, is because we’re so social. Looking at what social learning behaviours we share with other species is very important.”