Unconventional Illness Response in House Finches: Increased Sociability

by Hiroshi Tanaka
House Finch Behavior

Recent investigations into house finches have unveiled a peculiar behavior: these birds tend to increase their social interactions when they are ill, particularly during eating times. This behavior, which contrasts with the typical avoidance strategy seen in many animals, might lead to a higher risk of disease spread. This research offers fresh perspectives on how social behaviors adapt during sickness and contributes to a greater understanding of group dynamics and the transmission of diseases in social species.

The concept of social distancing while unwell has become a norm for many, but recent studies have shown that sick house finches behave differently. Marissa Langager, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the College of Science, led this research.

Contrary to other social creatures that isolate when sick, house finches, known for their sociable nature, actually seek closer contact with their healthy peers when they are unwell, even more than when they are healthy.

This is particularly evident in their feeding habits, as they prefer to eat in the company of their flock when sick.

House Finches and Their Distinct Illness-Related Social Tendencies

Langager notes that the recent pandemic years have highlighted the downsides of social distancing for group-living animals. For sick animals, the disadvantages of isolation can be significant, especially if they depend on their healthy group members for food or protection. This dependency might explain why finches increase their social interactions when ill, inadvertently endangering their healthy peers, especially at bird feeders which are common sites for disease spread.

Langager’s research, titled “Let’s stick together: Infection enhances preferences for social grouping in a songbird species,” co-authored with James S. Adelman and her advisor Dana Hawley, has been published in the Ecology and Evolution journal.

Prior research often focused on the general reasons animals become social and the benefits of social living. However, this study uniquely examines how contagious infections affect social preferences.

Broader Implications for Group Living

According to Langager, this study illuminates the behaviors of social animals during illness, potentially guiding future research in this field. Understanding the trade-offs of group living is vital, as it can inform predictions about disease spread among social animals and might reveal why healthy animals sometimes evolve mechanisms to avoid sick group members.

Further Exploration and Personal Drive

The unexpected findings of this study have spurred Langager to delve deeper into why sick finches show a stronger preference for group eating. This investigation forms a significant part of her doctoral thesis.

Langager hypothesizes that the energy expenditure for maintaining social ties, even when sick, must be outweighed by certain benefits. Her ongoing research includes experiments to determine how group membership influences a sick bird’s reaction to predators and its foraging success.

Langager’s fascination with animal social behavior and the opportunities provided by Dr. Hawley’s lab, which focuses on disease ecology in social bird species, have been instrumental in her research pursuits.

Reference: “Let’s stick together: Infection enhances preferences for social grouping in a songbird species” by Marissa M. Langager, James S. Adelman, and Dana M. Hawley, published on 14 October 2023 in Ecology and Evolution.
DOI: 10.1002/ece3.10627

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about House Finch Behavior

Do house finches become more social when sick?

Yes, house finches exhibit increased social interactions, especially during feeding, when they are sick. This behavior contrasts with many animals that tend to isolate themselves when ill.

How does the social behavior of sick house finches impact disease transmission?

The increased social interactions of sick house finches, particularly in feeding situations, may heighten the risk of disease transmission within their flocks.

What was the focus of Marissa Langager’s research on house finches?

Marissa Langager’s research focused on the unique social behavior of house finches during illness. It explored how these birds increase social contact with healthy flock mates when they are sick, particularly during feeding times.

How does the behavior of sick house finches differ from typical animal behavior during illness?

Unlike many animals that practice social distancing when sick, house finches increase their sociability, seeking more contact with their flock, which is contrary to typical animal behavior during illness.

What are the implications of the study on house finches for understanding group living?

The study provides insights into the behavior of social animals when sick and can help predict disease spread in social species. It also sheds light on the costs and benefits of group living for sick animals.

More about House Finch Behavior

  • House Finch Social Habits Study
  • Marissa Langager’s Research on Finches
  • Group Dynamics in Sick Birds
  • Disease Spread Among Social Animals
  • Ecology and Evolution Journal: Finch Study

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Emma L November 19, 2023 - 2:29 am

This research is quite revealing, Shows how much we still have to learn about animal behavior, especially under illness.

Mike Johnson November 19, 2023 - 8:48 am

Wow, really intresting to see how these birds act when they’re sick. kind of the opposite of what we do, huh?

Sarah K November 19, 2023 - 6:14 pm

i always thought animals would stay away from each other when sick, but house finches seem to break that rule. very curious!

Dave W. November 19, 2023 - 8:56 pm

house finches gathering more when sick – isn’t that risky for spreading disease?? seems counterintuitive.


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