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The Role of Experience in the Development and Retention of Seed Preferences in Zebra Finches

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The role of experience in the development of individual food preferences was tested in Zebra Finches using seeds of canary grass, white millet and red millet. Natural preferences, determined in birds reared from hatching on a mixture of equal parts of the three seeds was: red millet = white millet> > canary seed at five weeks of age, and red millet> white millet> > canary seed at 21 weeks. Birds reared exclusively on one of the millets invariably selected a millet over canary seed when tested at five weeks of age or at 21 weeks of age. Choice between the two millets in these tests was irregular with a slight tendency to select the familiar type. Birds reared exclusively on canary seed selected canary seed over a millet in 19 of 22 cases at five weeks of age and in 8 of 10 cases at 21 weeks of age. Selection in the 5 exceptions was statistically random. Birds reared exclusively on one of the millets for five weeks and then changed to the mixed ration for 16 weeks showed preference for a millet in 16 of 10 cases; the remaining 3 showed no definite preference. Birds similarly reared on canary seed and then given the mixed rations before testing selected canary seed in two cases, a millet in 7 and showed no definite preference in 3. Birds reared exclusively on canary seed for 21 weeks and then given only millets for 8 weeks selected canary seed in 2 cases, a millet in one and showed no clear preference in two. Birds reared on one seed type through the nesting period and then on a second seed through the fledgling period all selected the second, fledgling period, seed when tested immediately. When a two weeks period on a third seed, one of the naturally preferred millets, was inserted before testing 3 birds fledged on canary seed retained a preference for canary seed, 4 selected a millet and 2 showed no clear preference. Birds reared on the mixed ration to 21 weeks of age and then given only canary seed for 8 weeks showed a preference for canary seed in 2 cases, for a millet in 3 cases and for neither type in one. It is concluded that restriction to a non-preferred seed during the first 5 weeks of life induces a preference for that seed in Zebra Finches. This learned preference declines gradually with open or forced experience with naturally preferred seeds but persists in some individuals for at least 2 to 4 months. The 2-3 week period after fledgling is important in the establishment of these induced seed preferences, but some birds are postively influenced by imposed food experiences after 5 months of age.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.


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