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It has been argued that social learning helps animals either avoid noxious substances or identify food items, but evidence suggests that avian social learning is fundamentally different from that of mammals. In two experiments, we investigated whether the preferences of domestic hens, Gallus g. domesticus, for novel food were influenced by observing the feeding behaviour of conspecifics. In experiment 1, we attempted to confirm that birds can develop socially learnt aversions to unpalatable foods. Despite demonstrators showing a highly visible 'disgust reaction' after eating unpalatable coloured food, observers did not develop aversions to similarly coloured food. In experiment 2, we aimed to determine whether preferences for palatable food were socially learnt, and whether the extent of a demonstrator's preference for novel food affected the magnitude of the observer's socially learned preference. Demonstrators ate coloured food of standard or high palatability, or did not peck food at all. When the demonstrators pecked more frequently or fed more quickly from the food, the observers consumed a greater proportion of food of the same colour; however, this was only when the food was red, not green. We argue this indicates an unlearned aversion to red food, overcome by social learning of the food being highly palatable. The results provide no evidence that adult hens learn aversions through observing disgust reactions, but show that hens are sensitive to the extent of demonstrator preferences for palatable food. The data do not support the hypothesis that avian social learning is fundamentally different from that of mammals. © 2002 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original publication




Journal article


Animal Behaviour

Publication Date





933 - 942