Can you sparrow some sugar?

2 March 2018

Masters student Mike Davy.

Having a sweet tooth is not limited to humans. Birds get sugar cravings too. A research project monitoring the behaviour of sparrows on the University of Waikato campus has uncovered several interesting findings about their strong appetite for raw sugar.

Currently in his second year of a masters degree in Biological Sciences, Summer Research Scholarship winner Mike Davy feels honoured to have been selected for the programme. “It’s rare to find placements in the field of Animal Behaviour, so when I saw this scholarship advertised, I knew it would be an amazing opportunity,” he says.

Faculty of Science and Engineering Professor Carolyn (Kim) King came up with the project idea while having a cup of coffee at the lakeside Momento café on campus. “I noticed a sparrow opening a sugar packet and thought it would be an interesting behaviour to investigate, so I put it forward as a summer project idea,” she says. Summer Research Scholarships are open to students enrolled at a New Zealand or Australian university, and provide undergraduate, final-year honours and first-year masters degree students the opportunity to experience the challenges and rewards of research. Professor King was “delighted” when her novel project idea was accepted. “We needed to find a student capable of starting from scratch, and Mike was the right one - I'm very impressed with how well he has done in such a short time,” she says.

Over the summer period, Mike has been observing sparrows at the café, recording the number of sugar packets they steal, and capturing data on a range of variables that could be influencing their behaviour, such as footfall and the weather. Based on Mike’s observations, sparrows steal sugar almost as soon as the tables are set; they land on the cup, pull a packet out of the cup and peck the ends until it opens. “This unusual foraging behaviour indicates that these birds are able to adapt to living in a human-modified urban environment,” he says. As part of his research project, Mike has been spending his afternoons scanning the University campus grounds for sparrow-opened sugar packets, which he logs into a GPS tracker to create a distribution map. “Sparrows tend to distribute the sugar packets within a 200m radius of the café,” he says. Over the course of a year, Mike estimates that the thieving birds could end up costing Momento café in excess of $400 in sugar.

The study has found that sparrows have a preference for raw brown sugar in orange packets, while male sparrows seem to be the biggest troublemakers, accounting for 70% of stolen sugar packets. Thirty birds had to be caught and banded in order for Mike to be able to tell them apart. “It’s been fascinating to watch sparrows fighting each other over the packets, and teaching their offspring to eat sugar,” he says.

Lecturer Dr Clare Browne has been supervising and supporting Mike over the summer period. “The findings of the study are fascinating - sparrows are interesting little thieves and Mike has done such a good job on this project,” she says.

Working on this research project has helped Mike learn new skills and make useful connections. “It’s been a fantastic experience,” he says. “I had many friends have coffee with me while I was observing sparrows on campus, although I had to be extremely attentive and always on the lookout for cheeky bird behaviour.” This is Mike’s second Summer Research Scholarship: two years ago he took part in a biocontrol programme aimed at protecting New Zealand’s eucalyptus plantations from pest beetles.

This year 65 students have participated in the University of Waikato Summer Research Scholarship programme, which is intended to support and enhance research at the University of Waikato. The $5,000 scholarships are offered in various disciplines for a 10-week full-time research project over the summer study break.