The effects of urbanization and human disturbance on problem solving in juvenile house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)

Meghan O. Cook, Melinda J. Weaver, Pierce Hutton, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Abstract: Urbanization exposes wildlife to unfamiliar environments, including novel structures and food sources. Adapting to such anthropogenic conditions may require superior innovation and problem-solving skills (e.g., for navigating, foraging). Human presence in urban areas is a particular biotic challenge that may impact problem-solving capabilities in wildlife. Urban animals may be superior problem solvers in the face of human disturbance, due to familiarity with—and reduced fear of—humans. Alternately, rural animals may be better innovators if heightened fear responses from unfamiliar humans facilitate problem solving. Here, we studied the relationship between human disturbance, urbanization, and the ability to solve a novel foraging problem in wild-caught juvenile house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). This songbird is a successful urban dweller and native of the American desert southwest. In captivity, juvenile finches from urban and rural populations were presented with a novel foraging task (sliding a lid covering their typical food dish) and then exposed to regular periods of high or low human disturbance over several weeks before again being presented with the task. We found that rural, high-disturbance birds showed reduced task performance compared to highly disturbed urban finches. This is consistent with the hypothesis that urban birds are less affected by human disturbance due to habituation or adaptation. Additionally, we found that the best behavioral predictor of solving success was related to visual inspection of the problem and that urban low-disturbance birds exhibited this behavior more than rural high-disturbance birds. Overall, these findings suggest that urbanization and habituation to humans predict avian response to novel problems. Significance statement: As Earth’s landscapes become more urbanized, wildlife is exposed to many new anthropogenic challenges. In particular, animals in cities may have to locate food in unique ways and/or cope with increased human presence. We tested the effects of urbanization and human disturbance on problem solving in juveniles of a common urban and rural songbird (the house finch, H. mexicanus). We found that, when subjected to high levels of human disturbance, urban birds outperformed rural conspecifics on a novel foraging task (sliding open a lid to uncover food). We also found that task focus (i.e., average bout length of inspecting the dish) was an important predictor of problem solving. Our results suggest that acclimation to humans may be important for the superior behavioral performance of urban house finches and ultimately their colonization of many North American cities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number85
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2017


  • Behavioral plasticity
  • Foraging
  • Human impacts
  • Urban ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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