Flexible cue use in food-caching birds

Lara D. Ladage, Timothy C. Roth, Rebecca A. Fox, Vladimir V. Pravosudov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


An animal's memory may be limited in capacity, which may result in competition among available memory cues. If such competition exists, natural selection may favor prioritization of different memory cues based on cue reliability and on associated differences in the environment and life history. Food-caching birds store numerous food items and appear to rely on memory to retrieve caches. Previous studies suggested that caching species should always prioritize spatial cues over non-spatial cues when both are available, because non-spatial cues may be unreliable in a changing environment; however, it remains unclear whether non-spatial cues should always be ignored when spatial cues are available. We tested whether mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli), a food-caching species, prioritize memory for spatial cues over color cues when relocating previously found food in an associative learning task. In training trials, birds were exposed to food in a feeder where both spatial location and color were associated. During subsequent unrewarded test trials, color was dissociated from spatial location. Chickadees showed a significant pattern of inspecting feeders associated with correct color first, prior to visiting correct spatial locations. Our findings argue against the hypothesis that the memory of spatial cues should always take priority over any non-spatial cues, including color cues, in food-caching species, because in our experiment mountain chickadees chose color over spatial cues. Our results thus suggest that caching species may be more flexible in cue use than previously thought, possibly dependent upon the environment and complexity of available cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)419-426
Number of pages8
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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