For many animals, living with others has obvious benefits. Social animals can hunt in packs, gain safety in numbers or even learn from each other. In some cases, they can even solve problems more quickly as a group than as individuals. That’s even true for the humble house sparrow – Andras Liker and Veronika Bokony from the University of Pannonia, Hungary, found that groups of 6 sparrows are much faster at opening a tricky bird feeder than pairs of birds.
After ruling out several possible explanations, the duo put the speedy work of the bigger flock down to their greater odds of including boffin birds. Individual sparrows vary greatly in terms of their skills, experiences and personalities. Larger groups are more likely to include the sharpest bird brains, or several diverse individuals whose abilities complement each other.
Wild animals constantly encounter new, unfamiliar and challenging situations and the ability to adapt to them more quickly may give social species an edge over loners. The problem-solving advantages of groups have been demonstrated in humans. Three people, far from being a crowd, solve intellectual tasks faster than pairs or individuals, even if they were the smartest of the sample. There has been much less research on other animals, although scientists have certainly found that large groups of birds or fishes find food faster and more efficiently than smaller groups.
But Liker and Bokony’s sparrow experiments are the first to show that large animal groups outperform smaller ones at problem-solving tasks where they have to invent new techniques. House sparrows are a good choice for a study like this. They are very social birds that live in flocks of anywhere from a few individuals to a few hundred. They are opportunists that use their relatively large brains to find food in all sorts of new environments.