First-time nest-building zebra finches copy experienced conspecifics (#277)
Nest building is a form of animal engineering that is crucial to reproductive success in most birds. It is becoming clear that decisions made by birds when nest building are considerably more flexible and experience-dependent than is typically thought. To date, this work has been addressed at elucidating the role of individual learning in nest building. It is not clear, however, whether social learning plays a role in nest building. Social learning allows an animal to gain information rapidly from observing others without engaging in potentially costly trial-and-error learning. The extent of social information use, however, can depend on the identity of the animal performing the observed behaviour. We predict that first-time nest builders should be likely to capitalize on the success of other nest-builders when coming to build their own nests. We tested this hypothesis using male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) watching a familiar or an unfamiliar male build a nest from material of a colour the observer did not previously like. When given the opportunity to build their own nest, males that had watched a familiar male build a nest then changed their colour preferences to use material of the same colour as that of the familiar male. Males that observed unfamiliar birds did not change their preferences. Our findings show that first-time nest builders use social information when building their nest but they do not do so indiscriminately. Instead, they use social information only from familiar individuals to guide their behaviour.