Urban Ecosystems

, Volume 21, Issue 6, pp 1043–1051 | Cite as

Urbanization alters fear behavior in black-capped chickadees

  • Jenna L. Van Donselaar
  • Jenna L. Atma
  • Zachary A. Kruyf
  • Hattie N. LaCroix
  • Darren S. ProppeEmail author


Urban landscapes contain a multitude of novel sensory stimuli, and urban dwelling animals, such as songbirds living near human dwellings, must quickly learn how to respond to these unfamiliar cues. When exposure reveals that a stimulus is associated with a cost, fearful behavior should increase. Conversely, neophobic fear should decrease when negative outcomes do not regularly follow the stimulus. Because exposure to anthropogenic stimuli is more common in birds that inhabit urbanized landscapes, their fear response patterns should more accurately reflect the risks associated with these stimuli. We conducted a series of feeder and playback experiments to explore whether urbanization altered black-capped chickadees’ (Poecile atricapillus) fear responses to model cats, humans, a novel object, and anthropogenic noise. We predicted that fearful responses to cat models would increase in birds as urbanization increased because negative interactions with cats are more common in the city. However, we expected urban birds to be less fearful of our other stimuli because fitness costs are absent or less severe. As predicted, the fear of cats increased with urbanization, but the fear of noise decreased - as indicated by willingness to visit a feeding station. Other stimuli were not associated with urbanization, which may be related to the use of county and city parks where human presence is relatively common. Nonetheless, our results suggest that plastic fear responses to novel stimuli may facilitate urban success in the black-capped chickadee. More generally, behavioral plasticity may indicate the ability of a species to thrive in the urban environment.


FID Feeder Cat Park Bird Noise Novel object 



All protocols were approved by the Calvin College Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. Research was supported financially by the Calvin College Biology Department and Science Division. All authors contributed equally at each stage of the project, thus all could be equally considered as first author. We would like to thank research assistants from the Investigations in Urban Ecology course that contributed to the collection and compilation of field data, C. Holwerda and P. Jasperse for assisting in the design and construction of field equipment, and Kent County, the City of Grand Rapids, and several private landowners for allowing us to use their property. Finally, we thank Dr. Susan Lerman and three anonymous reviewers for their comments which greatly improved the manuscript.

Supplementary material

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyCalvin CollegeGrand RapidsUSA

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