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Traditions transmit for the great tit, study finds birds carry on customs

Photo: CC Darrel Birkett 

A recent study shows that human beings aren’t the only animals that feel the need to network.

Researchers from the University of Ottawa have collaborated on a study published in the scientific journal Nature that looked at how an English breed of bird forms traditions, cultures, and interacts socially.

“We were interested in trying to see if cultural behaviours and learning can be detected in other species, besides humans,” said Julie Morand-Ferron, an assistant professor in the department of biology at the U of O.

There have been attempts to see if animals conform to social behaviours as humans do before, but “many of these studies were targeted towards primates, who learn socially and conform to traditions,” she said.

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Ottawa, Oxford University, the Australian National University, and the University of Exeter.

The project

The researchers studied eight populations of great tit songbirds, because of their natural disposition to social interaction.

Two male birds in five of the populations were trained to slide a door on a puzzle box either to the left or to the right, revealing a mealworm as a reward. The remaining three populations were used as control groups; the birds were captured but not taught to slide the puzzle door.

The test subjects, now equipped with electronic tags to track the spread of their foraging techniques, were then released back into the wild.

The result

The researchers discovered that the great tits put their networking skills to good use, and passed on behaviour learned in the lab to other birds. The birds were more likely to push the puzzle door in the direction they had been shown.

“If birds learn and explore by themselves, then pushing the door should have been equal,” said Morand-Ferron. “However, over 90 per cent of birds pushed on the left side when they saw it being done, as well as birds who pushed on the right when they observed it being done in that direction.”

They also discovered that this copy-cat behaviour was passed down to younger generations, said Morand-Ferron, even though only 40 per cent of the birds were still alive in the following year.

What’s next?

The findings have opened up the field for further insight in “how birds are influenced by tradition and how it persists,” said Morand-Ferron.

Future research will also look at scrounging, the practice of stealing food from one another. This ability could also influence the social learning between birds, because the researchers observed that the birds became more adept at scrounging mealworms retrieved from the puzzle boxes.