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When To Copy Your Neighbors

Hint: only when they're successful.

Black-Bellied Flycatcher

Have you ever planted a garden because your neighbor’s garden was growing well? That’s the idea behind a 2013 study where scientists looked at the nestbox choices of pied flycatchers after the birds observed the “success” of nesting great tits.

First, great tits laid their eggs, which researchers added to, or took from, to give each nest either five or thirteen eggs. After eggs were placed, a triangle or circle was attached to the door of the box, which the flycatchers would associate with egg number. The flycatchers arrived and peeked into the tits’ nestboxes, noticing the shapes as well as eggs. Then, the flycatchers were given a choice between two unused boxes with the same shapes already attached.

But the flycatchers didn’t always pick boxes with the same shape as the birds with the most eggs.

Flycatchers who had nested before the study copied the great tits regardless of egg number. But first-time parents were more likely to pick the same shape if the great tits had more eggs.

So, for gardening it’s like planting everything your neighbor plants if you’ve gardened before, and like planting only well‑growing vegetables for first time gardeners.

This study is interesting for ecologists, because it introduces a new notion to the concept of niches. And niches are an organism’s needs and its effects on its habitat. This study shows organisms could have perceptual niches. That is, what they think is important, and how they use that information.

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