Wild birds respond to flockmate loss by increasing their social network associations to others.
Firth JA., Voelkl B., Crates RA., Aplin LM., Biro D., Croft DP., Sheldon BC.
Understanding the consequences of losing individuals from wild populations is a current and pressing issue, yet how such loss influences the social behaviour of the remaining animals is largely unexplored. Through combining the automated tracking of winter flocks of over 500 wild great tits (Parus major) with removal experiments, we assessed how individuals' social network positions responded to the loss of their social associates. We found that the extent of flockmate loss that individuals experienced correlated positively with subsequent increases in the number of their social associations, the average strength of their bonds and their overall connectedness within the social network (defined as summed edge weights). Increased social connectivity was not driven by general disturbance or changes in foraging behaviour, but by modifications to fine-scale social network connections in response to losing their associates. Therefore, the reduction in social connectedness expected by individual loss may be mitigated by increases in social associations between remaining individuals. Given that these findings demonstrate rapid adjustment of social network associations in response to the loss of previous social ties, future research should examine the generality of the compensatory adjustment of social relations in ways that maintain the structure of social organization.