In most species, social skills develop long before sexual maturity. In kindergarten, children are already learning the basics of playing nicely; share your toys and don't hit others. These early social skills are important for interacting and cooperating with colleagues throughout life, but does mastery of these kindergarten skills also translate to better courtship skills? Do those that share their toys more generously in kindergarten have better success on the dating scene as adults?

Gregory Kohn, Andrew King, Rebekka Dohme, Gwendwr Meredith and Meredith West from Indiana University investigated this phenomenon in the brown-headed cowbird, Molothrus ater. Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites, and so juveniles typically form flocks together, rather than interacting extensively with mature birds. However, brown-headed cowbirds still learn several key social abilities as juveniles. In particular, they learn to play nicely with others by using a head-down display, where one bird will bow towards another brown-headed cowbird, and invite the other bird to make close physical contact. Like sharing toys or giving a hug, this affiliative gesture lets birds form closer social bonds. In their study, the authors predicted that juvenile cowbirds would vary in their social skills, and some birds would initiate more of these displays, while others would initiate fewer. The authors predicted that the juveniles that had better social skills would then display better courtship skills as adults, and would be better at maintaining a stable relationship with a potential mate, than those with poorer social skills as juveniles.

To examine consistency of social skills as juveniles, the authors captured 12 male and 12 female juvenile brown-headed cowbirds and brought them back to the laboratory for the autumn and winter. To explore whether birds would be more likely to interact with familiar partners, the birds were divided into two aviaries for a month in the autumn, and then reunited for the remainder of the autumn and winter. The authors made daily recordings of the aviary throughout, noting all of the head-down displays, and which birds were involved. Finally, to examine how juvenile social skills related to adult courtship skills, daily recordings were made of both male courtship and female response to the courtship during the subsequent breeding season.

The researchers found that females typically initiated head-down displays with other females, while males were equally likely to initiate displays with both males and females. They also found that once the two flocks were reunited, the birds were more likely to initiate head-down displays with the birds they were familiar with. Individual females were consistent in the number of head-down displays that they initiated, with some females reliably initiating more head-down displays than others. Within the males, however, there was no pattern, and all males initiated similar numbers of displays. In the spring, the females that initiated higher numbers of head-down displays received more attention from males, and formed more stable partnerships with males than the females that initiated lower rates of these displays as juveniles. However, there was no relationship between juvenile social skills and adult courtship skills for males. Thus, for females, initiating close social relationships with other females as juveniles predicts courtship skills with males as adults. It appears that at least for female brown-headed cowbirds, everything they need to know, they learn in kindergarten.

G. M.
A. P.
G. R.
M. J.
Robust autumn social attributes predict spring courtship skills in juvenile female brown-headed cowbirds, Molothrus ater
Anim. Behav.
doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.01.009