1. Interest in the evolutionary origin and maintenance of individual behavioural variation and behavioural plasticity has increased in recent years.
2. Consistent individual behavioural differences imply limited behavioural plasticity, but the proximate causes and wider consequences of this potential constraint remain poorly understood. To date, few attempts have been made to explore whether individual variation in behavioural plasticity exists, either within or between populations.
3. We assayed ‘exploration behaviour’ among wild-caught individual great tits Parus major when exposed to a novel environment room in four populations across Europe. We quantified levels of individual variation within and between populations in average behaviour, and in behavioural plasticity with respect to (i) repeated exposure to the room (test sequence), (ii) the time of year in which the assays were conducted and (iii) the interval between successive tests, all of which indicate habituation to novelty and are therefore of functional significance.
4. Consistent individual differences (‘I’) in behaviour were present in all populations; repeatability (range: 0·34–0·42) did not vary between populations. Exploration behaviour was also plastic, increasing with test sequence – but less so when the interval between subsequent tests was relatively large – and time of year; populations differed in the magnitude of plasticity with respect to time of year and test interval. Finally, the between-individual variance in exploration behaviour increased significantly from first to repeat tests in all populations. Individuals with high initial scores showed greater increases in exploration score than individuals with low initial scores; individual by environment interaction (‘I × E’) with respect to test sequence did not vary between populations.
5. Our findings imply that individual variation in both average level of behaviour and behavioural plasticity may generally characterize wild great tit populations and may largely be shaped by mechanisms acting within populations. Experimental approaches are now needed to confirm that individual differences in behavioural plasticity (habituation) – not other hidden biological factors – caused the observed patterns of I × E. Establishing the evolutionary causes and consequences of this variation in habituation to novelty constitutes an exciting future challenge.