Lonely starlings stare at strangers

PierreSelim/Creative Commons

Lonely starlings stare at strangers

If you find people watching oddly compelling, you’re not alone. A new study suggests that gregarious European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) get a kick out of looking at their fellow birds, even if it’s just on a computer screen. Researchers took 10 captive starlings from their flock and isolated them for 4 days in a cage with plenty of food and water and a large flat-screen monitor. Most of the birds quickly discovered that poking their beaks into one sensor in the cage flashed a life-size photograph of an unknown starling onto the screen, while a second sensor produced a picture of a suburban landscape. The lonely birds seemed to enjoy looking at other starlings, the researchers found. On average, they triggered a new starling photo every 6 minutes, 7 hours a day, for 4 days. They only threw in a landscape every 20 minutes or so. It wasn’t just that the landscapes were boring. Given the choice between photos of starlings and photos of monkeys, a second group of five birds also pecked to view their own kind three times more often. The results suggest starlings have a natural yearning for social stimulation, the authors report online this month in Animal Cognition. In the future, starlings’ drive to view photos of one another could be used to study the social rewards that knit communities together.