U.S. Department of Agriculture: Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service


Date of this Version

January 2008


Published in Physiology & Behavior 93 (2008) 110–117.


The relationship between food flavors and postingestive feedback enables mammalian herbivores to procure nutrients and avoid toxins within ever-changing environments. We conducted four experiments with red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in captivity to determine the relative roles of color and flavor cues paired with negative postingestive feedback. We first conducted baseline tests to assess preferences for colors and flavors. All blackbirds preferred red- to blue-colored food, and they preferred umami- (L-alanine) flavored to bitter/astringent food (tannic acid). We observed no difference in consumption of salty (NaCl) vs sour (citric acid) foods during baseline tests (i.e., neutral flavors). We then conditioned experimentally naïve blackbirds with intraperitoneal injections of lithium chloride (LiCl) to avoid food treated with red and Lalanine, or red and NaCl (n=30 birds per conditioning group). Subsequent to conditioning with LiCl, three test groups were established from each conditioned group to evaluate color and flavor preferences, and preferences for novel color–flavor pairings (e.g., red/tannic acid vs blue/Lalanine). Blackbirds avoided red and salty food throughout the 4-day test. Avoidance conditioned with LiCl extinguished for preferred flavors, but not for colors, of food. Conditioning affected indifference for the otherwise preferred flavor and avoidance for the otherwise neutral flavor. Relative to the neutral-flavor conditioning group, the group conditioned with a preferred flavor exhibited stronger conditioned avoidance of colored food. Unlike conditioned flavor avoidance, birds were conditioned to avoid red food only when blue food was made familiar prior to conditioning. Collectively, these results illustrate that blackbirds used affective processes (flavor–feedback relationships) to shift preference for both novel and familiar flavors, and cognitive associations (colors) to avoid food, subsequent to toxin exposure. We discuss the opportunities afforded by affective and cognitive processing for reducing agricultural damage caused by blackbirds.