News Release

Captive-bred birds able to improve their flight and migration performance

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

SDE BOKER, Israel, January 8, 2024 – Two types of experiences affect the behavioral skills of animals: the animal's environment during its early development and acquired experience. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's researchers followed Egyptian vultures during migration, a critical and challenging period for them, and investigated how their flying skills developed by examining their performance using high resolution tracking.

Their findings were published in the journal Current Biology last month.

The flight skills of two groups of birds of the species Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), a long-distance soaring raptor, were assessed using GPS transmitters for 127 autumn migrations of 65 individuals. The two groups were quite different in terms of their early life experiences: one group was raised in captivity and the other in the wild. The birds in both groups improved their flight and migration performance as they gained experience. However, the improvements observed were most evident for vultures raised in captivity.

During their first migration, the captive-bred birds were less efficient but were able to catch up with the migration performance of those raised in the wild as early as the second migration. Thus, the experience gained helped offset the shortcomings of their early life experience at an early stage. Just as it is harder for humans to learn a language in old age, the vultures that hatched in captivity and were set free at a later age found it difficult to learn the necessary flying and roaming skills, but eventually caught up with those that learned earlier.

"We were able to generate data on the vultures' migration and flying skills. The data made it possible to learn about the value of early experience and acquired experience and their impact on the ability of birds to cope with challenging periods such as migration," explained Dr. Ron Efrat, one of the lead investigators, who recently completed his doctoral studies in the laboratory of Prof. Oded Berger-Tal of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "It seems that birds, like humans, are also affected by their life experience," he concluded.

The research group included: Prof. Nir Sapir from the University of Haifa, Prof. Thomas Mueller from Frankfurt University, and the Senckenberg Research Center in Germany, and Ohad Hatzofe, Bird Ecologist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

This study was supported by the German Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF), grant number I-1465-413.13.2018. In addition, Ron Efrat was supported by the Adams Fellowship of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

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