Bird's head colour determines its personality

13 June 2012

LJMU researchers Leah Williams and Dr Claudia Mettke-Hofmann from the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, have shown that highly sociable Australian birds,Image: males of the Gouldian finch. All three colour morphs occur in the wild; black is the most common, red comes second while yellow-headed is extremely rare. called Gouldian finches, have different personalities according to the colour of their heads.

Working in collaboration with Dr Andrew King from The Royal Veterinary College, the research team set the finches a series of behavioural tests to understand the purpose of their bright appearance. They found that red-headed finches were more aggressive, while black-headed birds were bolder and took more risks.

Leah Williams, who studied the birds as part of her PhD project at LJMU, commented:

"We think that head colour is used as a signal of personality to other birds in the flock, so they know who to associate with. Earlier studies didn't look to see if these behaviours are aspects of these animals' personalities, because they didn't repeat them multiple times. We decided to look at these finches, because an Australian study had revealed that the red-headed ones are more aggressive, with red-heads dominant over black-headed finches."

Gouldian finches have extremely colourful plumage with either red, black, or – rarely – yellow-coloured heads. They live in open, subtropical woodland, where they nest in loose colonies, feeding mainly on grass seeds.

The research measured three aspects of personality – aggression, boldness and risk-taking – in the finches. They tested the birds' tendency to investigate an unfamiliar object, in this case, bundles of string dangling from a perch, to find out how bold they were. To test for risk-taking behaviour, they presented both kinds of birds with a cardboard cut-out silhouette of a typical predator like a hawk.  For aggression, they put a feeder out for two hungry birds, with room for just one bird to eat.

They wanted to see which birds would demonstrate aggressive behaviour to get at the food on offer. They found that red-headed birds are quicker to displace each other, or display threatening behaviour with an open beak than the black-headed finches are, exhibiting a fiery personality.

They also found that birds with black heads returned to feeders after being shown the hawk silhouette much sooner than red-headed birds did, revealing a risk-taking personality. Black-headed birds were also more likely to approach and touch the string before a red-headed finch would.

The researchers say their findings may explain differences in colours.

Dr Claudia Mettke-Hofmann, LJMU Lecturer in Animal Behaviour, added:

"Colour is clearly related to behaviour. Different colours may mean each bird uses different behavioural tactic."

The findings are published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

The study was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The research has received international coverage including interviews on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 6th June, the BBC website, Planet Earth Online and The Daily Mail.

Image: males of the Gouldian finch. All three colour morphs occur in the wild; black is the most common, red comes second while yellow-headed is extremely rare.

Copyright is

Page last modified by Corporate Communications on 13 June 2012.
LJMU Logo banner imageLJMU Logo banner image (print)