Culture As An Animal Welfare Issue For Birds
The passage of information, behavior, and skills between individuals is a fundamental process in animal ecology and evolution. Be it in human or chimpanzee communities, social learning allows individuals to make use of the previous experiences of others to improve their own individual fitness. When such exchanges of information takes place over longer timescales, local cultures form. Cultures can even function as a sort of inheritance system, second to genetic evolution. Although evidently crucial in human development, the importance of cultures in other animals has only just begun to be determined.
In this study, Lucy M. Aplin, a researcher at Max Planck and Edward Grey institutes for ornithology, in Germany and the U.K., informs us that the strongest evidence for animal cultures has largely come from two groups: primates like us, and cetaceans, a group of aquatic animals that includes dolphins and whales. In this particular study, the author reviews the evidence for culture in different bird species, across several behavioral domains.
The author notes that social learning appears to be widespread and taken advantage of by individuals across diverse contexts. Birds, for example, show learning in the forms of predator recognition, courtship, and foraging. Actually, the first potential cultural transmission of a foraging behaviour was recorded as early as 1921, when tits were observed piercing the foil caps of milk bottles left on door-steps in southwest Britain.
There has also been a long history of research showing that bird songs can differ between populations and groups, forming what could be interpreted as local dialects. The limited locality of such behaviors leads to the suggestion that these innovations had spread and established to form new cultures. Meanwhile, studies on vocalizations in birds have provided some of the most comprehensive examinations of cultural evolution.
Other examples include whooping cranes making route choices based on social learning from experienced birds. Here, the presence of experienced older individuals in migratory flocks increases the long-term accuracy of migration for the younger birds.
Although the study of non-human animal cultures and their evolution is in its infancy, the researcher is excited about the developments in the study across multiple behavioural domains, from migration to tool use. In terms of cognitive ecology, culture emergence could mean that some wild animals are forced to include factors such as human presence and all of its side effects into the shaping of their long term behavioral patterns.
Animal advocates will be pleased to learn that scientists are discovering more and more similarities between the complexities of human and bird societies. Unfortunately, the most prolific birds on this planet, the ones kept in factory farms, never have the opportunity to develop local cultures as such processes are multi-generational. Shouldn’t we add this, too, to the list of things that farmed animals are being deprived of?