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Horm Behav. 2008 Aug;54(3):435-41. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.04.003. Epub 2008 Apr 23.

Behavioural and hormonal effects of social isolation and neophobia in a gregarious bird species, the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris).

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Department of Behavioural Neurobiology, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Eberhard-Gwinner-Str.7, D-82319 Seewiesen, Germany.


Separating gregarious individuals from their group members often results in behavioural and physiological changes, like increased levels of corticosterone. Testosterone and corticosterone, in particular, have been implicated in the response of mammals to novelty. Data in birds are, however, rare. The presence or absence of group members may also influence an individual's response to novel stimuli. We assessed the behaviour and hormonal response of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to a novel object in two different situations and seasons: each starling was tested when separated and when in contact with its group members in May/June (breeding season) and again in September/October (non-breeding season). Starlings are gregarious throughout the year, but as foraging flocks are small during the breeding season and large during the non-breeding season, we assumed that non-breeding starlings would be more affected by social isolation. Overall, starlings had higher levels of corticosterone, lost more body mass, and were more active when they were separated from their group. Isolated individuals, however, did not show a greater neophobic response than individuals in the presence of their group members in either season. Circulating levels of testosterone and corticosterone were higher after a test with novel object than after a test with only the familiar feeding dish in both sexes and seasons. However, control tests for handling effects confirmed only the increase in testosterone. Our study shows that social isolation is stressful for unrelated and unpaired members of a wild flocking bird species and demonstrates that novelty can lead to a rise in testosterone in birds.

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