Influence of early experience on processing 2D threatening pictures by European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)


Stimuli such as visual representations of raptors, snakes, or humans are generally assumed to be universally fear-inducing in birds and considered as a product of evolutionary perceptual bias. Both naïve and experienced birds should thus react to such stimuli with fear reactions. However, studies on different species have shown the importance of experience in the development of these fear reactions. We hypothesized that the responses of adult European starlings to fear-inducing visual stimuli may differ according to experience. We compared the reactions of Hand-raised adults with no experience of predators to those of Wild-caught adults, with potentially extensive experience with predators. Three visual stimuli (i.e. human, raptor, snake) were broadcast to 17 birds as 2D pictures (displayed via a LCD screen) with different modalities of presentation: degree of proximity and with or without movement. The results reveal that the birds were particularly sensitive to proximity and movement, with more attention towards moving stimuli and more withdrawal for close stimuli. The human stimulus elicited attention in both the distant and moving modalities but, like the other stimuli, mostly withdrawal when it was close. Developmental experience appeared to influence the emotional level, as the Hand-raised birds reacted strongly to all stimuli and all modalities, contrarily to the WC birds which performed withdrawals almost only for close stimuli and attention to moving stimuli. Stimuli proximity and movement seemed, therefore, relevant features that elicited negative reactions in Wild-caught birds. The Hand-raised birds were equally attentive to both distant and moving stimuli. Thus the young birds showed no real discrimination. Early and later experiences may, therefore, influence birds’ reactions. Starlings may require experience with real threats to develop adaptive responses, i.e. limiting unnecessary loss of energy by fleeing in front of non-dangerous stimuli.

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This study was funded by University of Rennes, CNRS and Airbus group. We are grateful to Nathalie PAPIN for her motivation for this study. We are also grateful to Emmanuel de MARGERIE and Robert MARIONNEAU for their help during the experiments, and Adrian CRAIG and Craig Symes for English proofreading and editing.

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Correspondence to Laurence Henry.

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Belin, L., Formanek, L., Heyraud, C. et al. Influence of early experience on processing 2D threatening pictures by European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Anim Cogn 21, 749–758 (2018) doi:10.1007/s10071-018-1207-x

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  • Vision
  • Perception
  • Starlings
  • Predator recognition
  • Human–animal relationship
  • Cognitive development