Wild birds sustain traditions too

Posted on Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wild birds learn new techniques by observing others in their social network. This “copycat” behaviour can sustain foraging traditions that last years, according to a study on wild great tits (Parus major), published today in Nature.

The study involves experiments with eight populations of great tits in England. In five of the populations, two male birds were trained to slide a puzzle box door either to the left or to the right. In three control groups, two males were captured but not trained. The birds were then released back into their original populations to act as “innovators” with puzzle boxes that revealed a tasty mealworm reward when opened from either side. Electronic tags were placed on the birds, recording how the two box-opening methods spread in each of the local populations.

“We already know that great tits are social birds, but the extent to which they relied on social information is quite astonishing,” says Julie Morand-Ferron, assistant professor in the University of Ottawa's Department of Biology. “The individual birds were much more likely to use the behaviour that dominated their local population.”

Lucy Aplin of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, first author of the report, adds “Even when a great tit already has experience using one method, if it moves to a new area that favours the alternative solution, this bird is likely to adopt the method preferred by its new group. It's as if its own personal experience is being overwritten by the majority behaviour.”

While traditions and cultural behaviour might well exist in animals other than primates, these elements are notoriously difficult to study in wild populations. As innovative and opportunistic foragers with complex social networks, great tits make the ideal model for studying the spread, establishment and persistence of such “animal culture.”

Professor Ben Sheldon, director of the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford University's Department of Zoology, says, “Because the particular form of the traditions has no bearing on survival, it might be expected that the traditions would be eroded over time as older birds die and are replaced by newcomers. However, our work shows that once a majority in a group adopt one way of doing things, these cultural traditions are passed on to the next generation and may persist over years.”

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Ottawa, Oxford University, the Australian National University and the University of Exeter. It was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the European Research Council (ERC).

Media inquiries

Kina Leclair
Media Relations Officer
University of Ottawa
Office: 613-562-5800 (2529)
Cell.: 613-762-2908

Back to top