Birds rely, at least in part, on spatial memory for recovering previously hidden caches but accurate cache recovery may be more critical for birds that forage in harsh conditions where the food supply is limited and unpredictable. Failure to find caches in these conditions may potentially result in death from starvation. In order to test this hypothesis we compared the cache recovery behaviour of 24 wild-caught mountain chickadees (Poecile gambeli), half of which were maintained on a limited and unpredictable food supply while the rest were maintained on an ad libitum food supply for 60 days. We then tested their cache retrieval accuracy by allowing birds from both groups to cache seeds in the experimental room and recover them 5 hours later. Our results showed that birds maintained on a limited and unpredictable food supply made significantly fewer visits to non-cache sites when recovering their caches compared to birds maintained on ad libitum food. We found the same difference in performance in two versions of a one-trial associative learning task in which the birds had to rely on memory to find previously encountered hidden food. In a non-spatial memory version of the task, in which the baited feeder was clearly marked, there were no significant differences between the two groups. We therefore concluded that the two groups differed in their efficiency at cache retrieval. We suggest that this difference is more likely to be attributable to a difference in memory (encoding or recall) than to a difference in their motivation to search for hidden food, although the possibility of some motivational differences still exists. Overall, our results suggest that demanding foraging conditions favour more accurate cache retrieval in food-caching birds.

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