College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Fall 11-26-2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Biological Science

First Advisor

Jalene LaMontagne, PhD

Second Advisor

Dennis A. Meritt, PhD

Third Advisor

Lydia Hopper, PhD


Behavioral flexibility is important for animals to adapt to novel situations in their environment. It has been suggested that birds living in complex environments (e.g., urban areas) should be more flexible than conspecifics in less complex environments. Birds are a particularly well studied group, where novel foraging problems are used to assess flexibility and problem-solving performance of urban and rural animals of the same species; however, this is most frequently done in a lab setting with wild-caught birds originating from different habitats. Using a field-based method to test problem-solving performance should give additional insight into other factors influencing birds’ flexibility. For my thesis research, to test birds’ neophobia of a novel feeder and to assess problem-solving performance of songbirds in the wild, I conducted a four-phase field-based study in urban and rural areas, including both backyard and forest habitats. The phases included i) habituation, ii) initial problem-solving task, iii) color association task, and iv) reversal task. Birds’ use of the feeder largely varied across time and habitats. Backyard birds used the feeder during the habituation phase in most sites (urban and rural) but stopped visiting the feeder once problem-solving was required to access food, suggesting that motivation plays a role in problem-solving and that birds’ motivation differs across sites. Use of feeders by urban birds was low and may be due to the high presence of mammalian competitors (e.g., squirrels and raccoons). Only birds in rural forests used the feeder throughout the study, and generally solved the puzzle more quickly over time. Factors influencing feeder use, such as neophobia or competition, creates challenges for testing cognition in the wild, and opens opportunities to study other factors influencing urbanizations’ effects on problem-solving.

SLP Collection


Included in

Biology Commons