Size is relative: use of relational concepts by wild hummingbirds

Theo Brown, T. Andrew Hurly, Susan D. Healy, Maria C. Tello-Ramos*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Rufous hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) will readily learn the location and the colour of rewarded flowers within their territory. But if these birds could apply a relational concept such as ‘the larger flowers have more nectar’, they could forego learning the locations of hundreds of individual flowers. Here, we investigated whether wild male territorial rufous hummingbirds might use ‘larger than’ and ‘smaller than’ relational rules and apply them to flowers of different sizes. Subjects were trained to feed consistently from one of two flowers. Although the flowers differed only in size, the reward was always contained in the same-size flower. The birds were then tested on a choice of two empty flowers: one of the familiar size and the other a novel size. Hummingbirds applied relational rules by choosing the flower that was of the correct relational size rather than visiting the flower of the size rewarded during training. The choices made by the hummingbirds were not consistent with alternative mechanisms such as peak shift or associative learning. We suggest that while hummingbirds are very good at remembering the spatial locations of rewarding flowers, they would be able to use relative rules when foraging in new and changing environments.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20212508
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1971
Early online date23 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2022


  • Behaviour
  • Research articles
  • Foraging
  • Hummingbirds
  • Relational concepts
  • Selasphorus rufus
  • Transposition


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