If you can’t find your own food, why not simply steal meals that others have stored for later?
A sneaky tactic perhaps, but one crucial for survival for the common songbird, the great tit.
What’s more, female tits are better at pulling off such heists than males, new research has discovered.
Outsmarting the opposite sex in this way may enable female tits to compensate for the males’ domineering personalities.
Great tits belong in the Paridae family. Their relatives in the same family, such as marsh tits, habitually store food.
Great tits do not. Instead they watch where their relatives store it and then pilfer their food caches.
A new study now shows that females are much better than males at remembering where such food has been hidden, a finding published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.
The authors say it’s vital for these females, because dominating males tend to have access to food first. It’s especially difficult to find food in winter, so remembering where food is stored could be the difference between life and death.
When the males are momentarily not around, female great tits successfully retrieve previously stored food, with studies showning they can remember its location for 24 hours.
That females were better surprised Anders Brodin of Lund University in Sweden, the lead author of the study.
“It’s very rare to have this type of sex difference in birds and that its females that have an advantage is unusual,” he said.
While in mammals males are known to be better than females when it comes to spatial awareness, in birds, sex differences are far less common.
“Males, as they are more dominant and have a more even access to food can always get there first, so it’s good for females that if they see a cache, they can memorise it and return later,” added Brodin.
To discover this Brodin and a colleague captured 16 great tits, half of each sex, and housed them in an indoor bird facility.
The birds were then placed in individual cages where they could observe the caching behaviour of 12 marsh tits in a “hoarding area” of ten artificial trees with small holes where food could be hidden.
Each caching hole looked the same so spatial memory was key in order to remember where the food had been stored.
The female great tits were not only better than males, they were also just as good as retrieving food as the marsh tits were at finding their own caches.
That in itself was also quite remarkable, Brodin said.
But in the wild, stealth is key. If a marsh tit is aware a great tit is watching, it will go somewhere else to hide its hoard.