Starlings' preferences for predictable and unpredictable delays to food

Anim Behav. 1997 Jun;53(6):1129-42. doi: 10.1006/anbe.1996.0388.


Risk-sensitive foraging theory is based on the premise that unpredictable runs of good or bad luck can cause a variable food source to differ in fitness value from a fixed food source yielding the same average rate of gain but no unpredictability. Thus, risk-sensitive predictions are dependent on the food intake from variable sources being not only variable but also unpredictable or 'risky' in outcome. This study tested whether unpredictability is a component of the value that foraging starlings, Sturnus vulgarisattribute to food sources that are variable in the delay to obtain food. Two groups of birds chose between a fixed and a variable delay option; the variable option was unpredictable in the risky group and predictable in the risk-free group in the overall rate of intake it yielded. In both groups the fixed option was adjusted by titration to quantify the magnitude of preference for predictable and unpredictable variance. On negative energy budgets both groups were significantly risk-prone, with the risky group being significantly more risk-prone than the risk-free group. Switching the birds to positive budgets by doubling the size of each food reward had no significant effect on preference, and similar trends to those found with negative budgets were observed. These results are not readily explained by risk-sensitive foraging theory, but may be explained by the algorithm used by the birds to attribute value to average expected rewards.