Hanging out in the outback: the use of social hotspots by wild zebra finches

Loning, Hugo; Fragueira, Rita; Naguib, Marc; Griffith, Simon


The social and spatial organisation of avian societies is often complex and dynamic with individuals socialising with others in a local population. Although social interactions can readily be described in colonial breeders through the location of nests, social interactions regularly take place in other contexts that are often not considered. Social behaviour in the colonially breeding zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata, has been the focus of much work in the laboratory, but very little is known about their social organisation in free-living populations, especially outside the breeding context. Here we characterise semi-permanent gathering locations, or ‘social hotspots' in the zebra finch in the wild. We determined the use of such social hotspots and the resulting group dynamics by quantifying movements to and from these locations through direct observation and by quantifying the vocal activity at these locations using acoustic recorders. We show that, throughout the day, zebra finches regularly visit these hotspots, and the hotspots are occupied for a substantial proportion of the day. Individuals typically arrived and left in pairs, or small groups, indicating that these social hotspots do not function just for flock formation. Instead, the high levels of vocal activity at these hotspots indicate that they may potentially function as local hubs for socialisation and information exchange, whilst also perhaps providing safety-in-numbers benefits to individuals during periods of resting. These findings characterise an important component of the natural social life of one of the most widely studied birds in captivity. The characterisation of these social hotspots highlights the use of landmarks by birds to facilitate social contacts, cohesion, and behaviour, in a social bird. Similar hangouts and social hotspots may be a feature of social behaviour in other multi-level aggregative species in which the fission and fusion of groups is an important component of daily life.