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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

Animal Cultures: Core Discoveries and New Horizons

Lecture 6: Major study groups – Birds

Lucy Aplin, Max Planck Institute for Animal Behaviour, Germany

Birds have traditionally been thought of as "one trick cultural ponies", exhibiting extensive cultural variation only in song. Indeed vocal learning for bird song is an extremely well-studied example of social learning, and there is abundant evidence that many bird species exhibit geographically variable song cultures. We also now have evidence for culture in birds across multiple behavioural domains.

In this lecture, I detail our current state of knowledge about cultural behaviour in birds. In doing so, I highlight how experiments with birds have played a vital role in improving our understanding of the mechanisms and processes underlying social learning and the emergence of culture.

Lucy Aplin

Lecture slides (pdf)

Core (testable) readings

Aplin, L.M., 2019. Culture and cultural evolution in birds: a review of the evidence. Animal Behaviour, 147, pp.179-187.

A recent review of the evidence for culture and cultural evolution in birds across multiple behavioural domains.

Beecher, M. D., & Brenowitz, E. A. (2005). Functional aspects of song learning in songbirds. Trends in ecology & evolution, 20(3), 143-149.

A comprehensive guide to the evolution and ecology of song learning in birds, including a critical review of the current state of knowledge.

Further reading

Aplin, L. M., Farine, D. R., Morand-Ferron, J., Cockburn, A., Thornton, A., & Sheldon, B. C. (2015). Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds. Nature, 518(7540), 538.

An experimental study of the spread of innovation and establishment of culture in a wild bird population.

Slagsvold, Tore, and Karen L. Wiebe. “Social learning in birds and its role in shaping a foraging niche.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366.1567 (2011): 969-977.

This paper is both a review of social learning in foraging behaviour and an experimental study using cross fostering to examine the role of cultural inheritance in shaping behaviour in three sympatric bird species.

Wright, T. F., & Dahlin, C. R. (2018). Vocal dialects in parrots: patterns and processes of cultural evolution. Emu-Austral Ornithology, 118(1), 50-66.

A review of the evidence for dialects in social calls of parrot species, and a discussion of the interplay between ecology, social dynamics and vocal learning.

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