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Male robin senses mate's food wants: study

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 19/04/2017

Research on North Island robins has shown for the first time that wild male birds are able to read their partners' behaviour and provide the food they want, a study says.

The study looked at whether robins at the Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington could give the desired type of food to their mates during reproduction.

Victoria University postdoctoral research fellow Dr Rachael Shaw says the experimental procedure has been used only in the laboratory on Eurasian jays.

Dr Shaw says robins were ideal for the study, being monogamous and food-sharing.

"We found male robins appropriately catered to their mates' desire, even when the female's behaviour was the only cue available to guide their choices," she said.

The finding raised the possibility that other species might be capable of the same.

Dr Shaw said the male's food-sharing is vital in many species to help the female offset the energetic costs of reproduction, such as egg laying and incubation.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, involved establishing female robins' eating habits with two types of two insect larvae.

After having eaten one type, the females were found to prefer to eat the other when given the choice.

Dr Shaw then tested if the male could choose the type of insect his mate was most likely to want, namely, the one she had not just eaten.

"Regardless of whether or not he had seen what his mate ate first, the male still made the appropriate choices," she said.

"This suggests that the female is likely to be displaying her current desire in her behaviour, and that the male is using these cues to identify the food that she wants."

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