String-pulling is one of the most popular tests in animal cognition because of its apparent complexity, and of its potential to be applied to very different taxa. In birds, the basic procedure involves a food reward, suspended from a perch by a string, which can be reached by a series of coordinated pulling actions with the beak and holding actions of the pulled lengths of string with the foot. The taxonomic distribution of species that pass the test includes several corvids, parrots and parids, but in other families, data are much spottier and the number of individuals per species that succeed is often low. To date, the association between string-pulling ability and other cognitive traits was never tested. It is generally assumed that string-pulling is a complex form of problem-solving, suggesting that performance on string-pulling and other problem-solving tasks should be correlated. Here, we show that individuals of two innovative species from Barbados, the bullfinch Loxigilla barbadensis and the Carib grackle Quiscalus lugubris fortirostris, pass the string-pulling test. Eighteen of the 42 bullfinches tested succeeded, allowing us to correlate performance on this test to that on several other behavioral measurements. Surprisingly, string-pulling in bullfinches was unrelated to shyness, neophobia, problem-solving, discrimination and reversal learning performance. Only two of 31 grackles tested succeeded, precluding correlational analyses with other measures but still, the two successful birds largely differed in their other behavioral traits.
The bullfinch Loxigilla barbadensis is an endemic passerine on the Caribbean island of Barbados that has only recently been taxonomically split from the Lesser Antillean bullfinch L. noctis. The trait that most clearly distinguishes L. barbadensis from L. noctis is the absence in the male of sexually dimorphic coloration of the body and throat feathers, with L. barbadensis males and females sharing the same dull brown plumage. Here we report, in 64 individuals netted throughout the island, the results of a discriminant analysis on two (wing length and tail length) to four morphological traits showing very high (97%) concordance with sexing via PCR using blood samples. Females also show a paler lower mandible, a trait that yields an 80% concordance with PCR sexing. We found one L. barbadensis male that had a noctis-like reddish throat patch, supporting the idea that sexual dichromatism is the ancestral condition and that male Barbados bullfinches have evolved cryptic coloration that now makes the species monochromatic.
Behavioural innovations have been largely documented in birds and are thought to provide advantages in changing environments. However, the mechanisms by which behavioural innovations spread remain poorly known. Two major mechanisms are supposed to play a fundamental role: innovation diffusion by social learning and independent appearance of the same innovation in different individuals. Direct evidence for the independent emergence of the same innovation in different individuals is, however, lacking. Here, we show that a highly localized behavioural innovation previously observed in 2000 in Barbados, the opening of sugar packets by Loxigilla barbadensis bullfinches, persisted more than a decade later and had spread to a limited area around the initial site. More importantly, we found that the same innovation appeared independently in other, more distant, locations on the same island. On the island of St-Lucia, 145 km from Barbados, we also found that the sister species of the Barbados bullfinch, the Lesser Antillean bullfinch Loxigilla noctis developed the same innovation independently. Finally, we found that a third species, the Bananaquit Coereba flaveola, exploited the bullfinches' technical innovation to benefit from this new food source. Overall, our observations provide the first direct evidence of the independent emergence of the same behavioural innovation in different individuals of the same species, but also in different species subjected to similar anthropogenic food availability.