The role of beginner's luck in learning to prefer risky patches by socially foraging house sparrows

Tomer Ilan, Edith Katsnelson, Uzi Motro, Marcus W. Feldman, Arnon Lotem*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although there has been extensive research on the evolution of individual decision making under risk (when facing variable outcomes), little is known on how the evolution of such decision-making mechanisms has been shaped by social learning and exploitation. We presented socially foraging house sparrows with a choice between scattered feeding wells in which millet seeds were hidden under 2 types of colored sand: green sand offering ~80 seeds with a probability of 0.1 (high risk-high reward) and yellow sand offering 1 seed with certainty (low risk-low reward). Although the expected benefit of choosing variable wells was 8 times higher than that of choosing constant wells, only some sparrows developed a preference for variable wells, whereas others developed a significant preference for constant wells. We found that this dichotomy could be explained by stochastic individual differences in sampling success during foraging, rather than by social foraging strategies (active searching vs. joining others). Moreover, preference for variable or constant wells was related to the sparrows' success during searching, rather than during joining others or when picking exposed seeds (i.e., they learn when actively searching in the sand). Finally, although for many sparrows learning resulted in an apparently maladaptive risk aversion, group living still allowed them to enjoy profitable variable wells by occasionally joining variable-preferring sparrows.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1398-1406
Number of pages9
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jul 2013


  • Decision making
  • Producer
  • Risk sensitivity
  • Scrounger
  • Social foraging
  • Social learning


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