The Culture of Birds

The concept of culture is normally restricted to the human species and sometimes to the closely related primates. However, recent studies have shown that aspects of human culture can be found in many other species, most significantly birds. In his article “Culture is for the birds… and the bees… and the dolphins, etc.”, John Hartigan discusses how there are many species of birds that display aspects of culture that in the past would have only been considered as human traits. One aspect of culture that he discusses is how “experimentally induced innovation lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds”. This aspect of culture is shown in a bird known as the Great Tit which are highly innovated foragers. Two of these birds were caught and trained to open doors to get food in a lab and when they were released back into the wild these birds carried on these techniques which then spread as “traditions”. The birds also preferred to use the behavior that “was locally established, conforming to the local foraging practice” which is an act of aligning with conventional behavior and “belonging” to a group, an act that is seen within human culture.

Parrots are another bird that Hartigan discusses that share similar cultural qualities to humans. He states that “both parrots and primates have similar relative brain volumes, are long-lived, have extended development periods, live in complex social groups, and show evidence of advanced cognition”. However, he also states that parrots share a quality with humans that not even primates do which is the ability to “display vocal learning”. Social factors have a strong influence on vocal learning for both humans and parrots and is a fundamentally socially driven phenomenon. Hartigan says that a “deeper understanding of why parrots learn calls from certain individuals can provide insight… into the evolution of vocal learning and social complexity” all of which has to do with culture. Hartigan describes that right now conservation efforts mainly focus on the genetic traits of the animals being protected, but maybe it is time to start considering the social and cultural traits of animals just as much as the genetic traits to have the most biodiversity among social groups, populations, and species.