Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Bold and the Beautiful

The Bold and the Beautiful

By Wouter van Dongen

The discovery that a gene partly determines which swans are bold and which are wary of people could assist captive breeding programs in cities.

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A common pastime for many people in parks is to feed native wildlife such as ducks, swans and other birds. These birds often come into very close contact with humans and will even sometimes snatch the food out of our hands. However, if you spot the same species of birds farther away from the cities, such as in lakes where fewer people occur, the birds are often much more wary and won’t let people approach closely at all. What causes this stark difference in wildlife fear of humans?

One explanation for the greater tameness of city animals is a process known as habituation. This involves an animal repeatedly experiencing a harmless stimulus and eventually learning to stop responding to that stimulus. This could be useful, as persistently responding to a harmless stimulus could waste a lot of the animal’s time and energy. Thus city birds may learn that the constant stream of people walking by poses no threat and therefore cease to respond to approaching humans.

Habituation also occurs in humans. When people move into a new house on a busy road, the noise may be unbearable at first. However, they eventually become used to the sound and may no longer consciously detect it.

Habitation may be one explanation for the tameness of our city swans, but we were interested in exploring a different idea: that wariness of humans differs among individual swans, and...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.