Watch the replay of this event held on February 16, 2022. (Transcript below.)

An explosion of research is finding that culture — once thought to be exclusive to humans — is widespread among animals and plays an important part in their social lives and survival. Birds offer some of the most interesting and surprising examples of animal culture. Just as with human languages, songbirds have dialects that are learned and passed down through generations. Construction and use of tools by crows and problem solving by cockatoos also appear to be culturally learned and transmitted. Learn what researchers mean by bird culture, what’s known about how it develops and is sustained, and what it means for how we think about and relate to birds and other animals.


Lucy Aplin, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Lucy Aplin is a Max Planck Research Group Leader and heads the Institute’s Cognitive and Cultural Ecology Lab. Her research explores the interactions between cognition, sociality and ecology in birds, the process by which new behaviors emerge, spread and persist in animal populations and the ability of species to exhibit rapid behavioral adaptation, through diffusion of innovation and cultural inheritance. This work involves laboratory experiments, field studies of wild birds and state-of-the-art automated tracking technologies and analytical techniques. Aplin’s current projects include vocal learning and sociality in parrots, and the Clever Cockie Project, which focuses on society, culture and learning in Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

Julia Hyland Bruno, Columbia University

Julia Hyland Bruno is an ethologist interested in the behavioral development of social animals like songbirds or humans that learn to communicate with each other. Despite the evolutionary distance between songbirds and humans, there are intriguing similarities between birdsong learning and language learning. Her research explores how communication patterns among individuals influence social organization with a focus on the social dynamics of learned communication patterns among songbirds. Hyland Bruno received her PhD in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience from the City University of New York, where she studied the rhythmic patterning of zebra finch vocal learning. She is currently a Presidential Scholar in society and neuroscience at Columbia.


Betsy Mason, science journalist and contributing editor Knowable Magazine

Betsy is a 2022 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow researching how the science of animal minds is changing how we think about us and them. She has a master’s degree in geology from Stanford University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2015–16, she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.


This event is one in a series supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Knowable Magazine is a product of Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable Magazine comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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Betsy Mason: “And tell me, can you hear me?

“OK, great. Well, thanks for hanging in there with us with this technical difficulty. Welcome. I am Betsy Mason, a contributing editor at Knowable Magazine from Annual Reviews. And I’m very happy that you’ve joined and remained here with us for the 15th conversation in our online event series. So today we’ll be talking about the cultural lives of birds, and we’ll leave some time at the end for questions from the audience. So please put them in. Well, I’m not sure where the box is now. We have people who will gather your questions wherever you put them.

“So, we know culture is a very important aspect of living in human societies. And for a long time, culture was thought to be uniquely human. But like many things we used to think were uniquely human, it turns out many other animals have culture as well. And the more scientists look, the more species they’re finding that have culture, and the closer they look, the richer those cultural lives appear to be.

“So many scientists have been recently turning their attention to culture among birds. And one of the strongest examples of culture anywhere in the animal kingdom is birdsong, which invites comparison to human language. But scientists are also finding many other intriguing aspects of bird cultures, such as what they eat, and how they find their food. And it turns out culture may actually help birds and other animals adapt to a rapidly changing environment. So we’re going to get into all of that and more, and I’m thrilled that we have two great people with us here today to share their research perspectives and to answer your questions.

“We’ve got Julia Hyland Bruno. She’s a presidential scholar in society and neuroscience at Columbia University. And she studies how social animals like humans and songbirds learn to communicate with each other. We also have Lucy Aplin. She heads the cognitive and cultural ecology lab at the Max Planck Research Institute of Animal Behavior, where she studies cognition and social behavior of birds and how new behaviors emerge, spread and persist in animal populations.

“So thank you, both, for being here, assuming you’re both here. So let’s start with what we mean by culture. Most people probably have a general conception of human culture as a mix of shared traditions and social customs, along with things like language, food, fashion, religion. But how do behavioral scientists think about culture, particularly when it comes to other animals? And it looks like Lucy is here, so let’s start with you.”

Lucy Aplin: “Hi. Hopefully you can hear me all right.”

Betsy Mason: “Yep.”

Lucy Aplin: “Great. Yeah. So as you said, culture can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but when we try and study in animals, we can’t study it with the use of language and we have to try and use a really functional definition that allows us to sort of apply it equally across lots of different species.

“So we tend to use this broad catch-all, which is that culture is behavior that’s learned by copying others, that’s shared in a group and that persists over time or even generations. And it’s actually the last part that’s really exciting because it means that culture can operate as this second inheritance system alongside genes. So you can pass information down through generations and that, in animals as well as in humans, and that this information can help animals actually form more locally adaptive behaviors to sort of specific environmental conditions, often kind of faster than genetic change could work.

Betsy Mason: “Great. So, Julia, how do you think about culture and how does birdsong fit into research and thinking about animal culture?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yeah. So birdsong is one of the first examples of animal culture that was studied really thoroughly in a scientific way. People have noticed that birds seem to incorporate some of the sounds maybe in their environment, maybe sounds that humans have tried to teach them. We’ve noticed that for a long time, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century when there was sophisticated-enough recording technology to capture this behavior, these vocalizations, that people started to test these ideas, that the songs that birds are singing are actually learned. And they were able to demonstrate that using two different experimental approaches.

“One was using something called cross-fostering, where chicks were taken from their nest and then raised by adults from another area, another geographical region. And those experiments showed that there’s some flexibility. So birds will end up learning to sing songs that sound like whoever they were raised by. So there are these geographical differences that were then shown to be learned rather than genetic.

“And then another technique was to use artificial songs and play them to these young birds in the lab and see what happens. And also what happens when birds are not exposed to any songs. And so birds that were raised alone in these early pioneering experiments ended up developing very abnormal songs, which showed that they need this learning, this normal developmental learning.

“So my research is in that tradition. And I think right now there’s a lot more research on animal culture going on. And it’s an exciting moment to think about how these different culturally transmitted behaviors relate within a species, even. We don’t often connect the social learning that might happen with vocalizations with other kinds of social learning. So this is a good conversation to have.”

Betsy Mason: “Great. So, Lucy, how widespread is culture among animals and does it require anything special, any sort of sophisticated cognition?”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah. So Julie has just mentioned one example of birds and birdsong. And actually we know that there’s now examples of cultural traits across really wide behavioral spectrum, from foraging behavior to tool use to song to one I really love, in chimpanzees, where different communities vary in the way they hold hands when they groom each other. And so that gives you an idea of the breadth. But also the breadth in terms of taxa is just growing every year that we study this. We now know there’s cultural traits in largely vertebrate taxa, but there might actually be some examples that are really intriguing from invertebrates as well. But definitely in primates, in cetaceans, in birds, and in a few other mammal species as well.

“And I think what we’re learning from these examples is that perhaps complex culture requires some sort of complex cognition and certainly complex sociality to underpin, but the building blocks of culture are present really early on. So if all we require to learn behavior is that we copy another individual and remember it, and it gets passed on to another one, then all you actually need to do is to be able to learn and to be social. And we know that lots of animals are those two things. So it doesn’t seem to require anything complex, but certainly the sort of complex cultures we observe in humans are unique. And probably anything like that is only present in a few other species.”

Betsy Mason: “So you …”

Lucy Aplin: “But perhaps in birds.”

Betsy Mason: “Oh, go ahead.

“You’ve been looking into culture and birds, including a recent study that some of our audience may have heard about, where Australian cockatoos learned to open trash bins. Can you tell us more about that and your research?

Lucy Aplin: “Sure. So actually to start with tying it back to this topic of birdsong, we already knew that parrots are large-brained and social and that they have really flexible vocalizations and have vocal cultures. So they show dialects in different areas. And that’s maybe not surprising for people if they think about how good parrots are at imitating our voices when they live with us. But until recently, there actually hasn’t been any evidence of cultures in other behavioral traits in parrots, which we found kind of surprising. But it actually was sort of serendipitous.

“We had reports in our population that we were studying — urban ecology of this large parrot, the sulphur-crested cockatoo — that they were doing these weird innovative behaviors in response to living in this new open environment. And one of them was that they’re actually opening household rubbish bins. So these are these big — we call them in Australia, wheelie bins — the big plastic bins. You put them on the curb on bin collection day. They’ve got these big lids, and in one area of Sydney, where these birds are common, they were starting to sort of lever up the lids and then they sort of do the shuffle along. And then they flip the lid over at the end, to obviously get bread or whatever else they can find in the bins. So we thought this was fascinating. It’s really physically challenging for them as well. And it seems to be cognitively quite difficult to do.

“And we started to study it at different scales. So we identified where we thought this behavior was occurring and we did a widespread citizen science approach. We basically asked people: Have you ever seen this? Where do you live if you have seen it, or not seen it? How long ago was the first time you saw it? And do you still see it happening? And by doing this, we were able to map both the origin of the behavior, and it spread geographically, and over time.

“We then wanted to know much more in detail about the actual form of the behavior and who was doing it. So we went into a few areas and we did intensive video observations — people probably thought we were very weird taking videos of their bins — and we were able to show that the behavior spread through the social networks in the bird communities. That it was a sort of multi-step complex behavior that took them six months or more to learn. And that actually not only had it spread, but it also started to diversify into sort of locally distinct subcultures, that they started to open bins in different ways in different areas.

“So we were really excited about this, because it shows us how cultures can, the rush at the beginning, how new environments can trigger new behaviors through innovation and that the spread of these behaviors can lead to the establishment of new cultural traits.”

Betsy Mason: “So I think we have got a little video of a bird actually doing this. I don’t know if that’s going to work on our new platform — maybe, maybe not. All right, if we get it, we’ll catch up with it later.”

Lucy Aplin: “If anyone wants to see it, you can also YouTube it.”

Betsy Mason: “Yeah. Looks like we can’t. We’ll give a link to where you can see it. We won’t be able to show it here.

“So Julia, maybe you can describe your research on zebra finches in the lab and maybe a little bit about how birdsong compares with human language.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “So my research is focused on what is the nature of the kinds of interactions that lead to these sort of cultural spreads? Whether it’s an innovative behavior or just transmitting, faithfully copying a behavior over iterations of generations.

“So I do experiments in the lab with zebra finches, where I can control the social environment and record all of the vocalizations that a young bird is making during the developmental process, which in zebra finches can just can take a few months when they’re young. So that’s the advantage of working in the lab for me.

“But there are definitely ways to begin to understand these questions in more naturalistic environments, because, as Lucy was describing, cities are basically just like experiments in animals’ lives. We are constantly perturbing their environment and often this is not in controlled ways, but there are some interesting examples. When, for example, during the pandemic, there was synchronized human behavior, where all of a sudden cities changed dramatically. And so people who are interested in how animals might react to these changes were ready. Scientists have recorded a lot of data. We probably haven’t seen most of the findings yet.

“But in birdsong, San Francisco, the Bay Area, was one of the first hotspots to study birdsong and the discovery of these regional dialects being forms of culture. And so people use the same birds that they have been studying for decades now: these white crown sparrows. And they found that white crown sparrow’s song did change when the Bay Area suddenly became much quieter during the pandemic.

“So they had known that the birds are changing their vocalizations; it seems in response to loud sounds usually, maybe sacrificing some complexity in their songs just to be heard. But then when suddenly the traffic quieted down, the birds seemed to sing softer and some more complex songs. So that’s an interesting way in which you can take advantage of terrible global events to try to study natural experiments. And I think that’s the important future direction for studying animal culture, is to think of hybrids lab versus non-lab.”

Betsy Mason: “Great. So what are zebra finches like to work with in the lab? Do they like you?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “No, ideally they’re indifferent. They just care about each other. You can — they’re kind of common pets — so you can hand raise them and then they will become imprinted on you, and they’re very sweet and affectionate. But normally they save that sweetness for each other. But they’re really fun to observe and because they just love to talk all the time and they’re very, like, active social animals.”

Betsy Mason: “Lucy, how about working with cockatoos in the field? Do they try to interact with you ever?”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah, of course. The cockatoos are well-known as sort of extremely charismatic birds. They’re very unafraid of people and they’re very easy to habituate. So we find them actually just fantastic to work with in the field. And that’s a huge help to us, because people who live in Australian cities and live alongside parrots all the time also, well, sometimes hate them, but often love them and love to observe them, which is a huge source of information for us in that environment.

“Actually I just wanted to pick up on something you said there, which was about the fantastic way in which we can do experiments with birds and go from the lab to the field. So when I started looking at this question that I was doing it in titmice, which are famous for opening milk bottles in the UK and this was spreading in the early 20th century. And we used experiments in the lab and in the field where we innovated or introduced an innovator and what spread. And that gives us really fantastic insight into the capacity for culture and how it should spread under certain conditions.

“But then what’s really great is when we can do that, but then match that with sort of these natural observations. Like you say, natural experiments where the environment is changing and the birds are actually responding to that. And then we can observe that and match it to the experimental patterns that we hopefully also see line up. And that’s something that’s almost, I think, unique about birds. This is much more difficult to do, for example, if you study whale culture. But birds, yes.”

Betsy Mason: “So when you say you introduced innovations in the lab, do you mean you taught the birds something new and then watched them teach it to other birds, or other birds pick it up?”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah. So in a study we did on titmice, we first trained birds in the lab to slide a door to left or right. And then we released those birds back into the world. So we had caught them and kept them for about a week to train them. And then we put out these little sliding-door puzzles in the wild and watched it spread through the wild populations. And we were able to infer that it was cultural transmission rather than innovation on the part of all the birds. Because sliding the door left or sliding the door right was equally difficult, equally rewarding. And so if we’d introduced a bird that slid the door to the right and that whole population ended up doing it in the same direction, that gave us really good evidence that we had these sort of spread of behavior. So yes, we did this with little birds. It’s a bit harder to do with cockatoos. I can’t think of any examples where people have done this with birdsongs, but that would be pretty amazing.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Not in the wild that I know of, no.”

Lucy Aplin: “But in the lab, for sure.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “In the lab we can definitely, and we do, give birds artificial songs to copy that we think might be particularly challenging or interesting in certain ways. And then we can track over generations to see how the learning process gets transmitted. That’s work that’s been done.”

Betsy Mason: “So when you’re studying animals, either in the lab or in the field and you see a behavior, how do you determine whether or not it is a cultural behavior? Either of you want to take that, Lucy?

Lucy Aplin: “I can jump in, yeah. So this is something we think about a lot, because of course, as scientists, we will not have a really strong, so I don’t know, evidence before we can claim something is cultural. So there tends to be two different ways that we can do it. First way is what we call the method of exclusion and this is what’s been developed particularly in primate studies where it’s harder to sort of manipulate things. And that’s basically to study different communities that differ in behaviors.

“For example, two populations of chimpanzees, that one cracks nuts with anvils and one doesn’t, and then try to come up with every possible alternative explanation. So genetic differences, environmental differences, social differences. And if you can’t come up with anything, then what seems like is left is that it must be cultural differences.

“In birds we’re often able to do experiments to really then test. So we start with that as a sort of working hypothesis, and then we try and test it. So we can do spread of innovation experiments, like the one I just described with titmice, where the idea was basically to try and test whether that original milk bottle opening was actually likely to be culture by replicating the same sort of conditions.

“Or we can do things like cross-fostering experiments, which have now been done in the wild — where you take eggs and you swap them between nests of birds, of different cultural behaviors, and then you see what those chicks do. And if they match the foster parents, rather than their genetic parents, we can say that’s unlikely that those behavioral differences are genetic. They’re much more likely to be culturally transmitted.”

Betsy Mason: “So with birdsong, Julia, what happens if a bird doesn’t have another bird to learn from, there is no sort of cultural environment for the birdsong? What happens? Do they end up with no song? With a different song?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “So songbirds in all the species that have been looked at seem to have this drive to vocalize, and their vocalizations will develop. They won’t be mute and then the vocalizations will change, but they won’t be recognized as species typical or group typical. And so that you can test that by checking the responses of other birds — for example, a mate, or maybe a potential tutor. So how well do the young copy this strange isolate song. And that’s actually a really interesting study that was able to show that, yes, song and zebra finches learned, but there are also genetic constraints on the learning. So when young zebra finches were given isolate tutor song, this very abnormal song that had no tutor himself, they ended up copying it, but with modifications. And over just a few generations they ended up back with a kind of song that sounded like normal zebra finch song to us, and also to zebra finches.

“So the isolate studies that you mentioned themselves also expose some of the innate raw material that the learning works with, because no cultural animals are totally free to learn anything. There are evolved genetic differences that sort of constrain cultural learning in very different ways. And that’s a really interesting newer line of investigation.”

Lucy Aplin: “And that’s a really great point. I made that a little bit simplistic when I said we try and exclude genetic explanations. You can never entirely exclude genetic explanations, they also shape human culture. But we try and sort of partition the variants between these different sources.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “For sure. And just to draw out the contrast that we’re both kind of referring to for the audience: In birds, there are about 4,000 songbird species. So there are many, many, many songbirds, and all of those songbirds seem to have some kind of vocal learning that’s culturally transmitted, but they have lots of different ways of doing it. And then there are many other birds like chickens, pigeons, lots of birds, all birds of prey, that don’t seem to have learned vocalizations at all, but they do vocalize. But their vocalizations seem to be not flexible. And they don’t have this ability to modify them to match sounds that other birds are making. So there’s a continuum for sure.”

Lucy Aplin: “I think another great example of this in another domain is New Caledonian crows, which famously use stick tools. And that is cultural. It’s socially learned, it’s transmitted down generations, it’s shared in groups, and differs in different parts of the islands. But they also have a genetic predisposition to make tools. You can raise a New Caledonian crow in complete isolation and it will play with tools and try and make tools. So it’s more like this genetic basis is then shaped by learning and interaction with the other individuals around them. And of course we expect that you expect that if something that we have, what we call gene culture, co-evolution, that genetics and cultural behaviors are actually in feedback with each other.”

Betsy Mason: “Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit more about that, about cultural evolution. It seems to be gaining a lot more attention among scientists these days. Lucy, can you explain what that is? What cultural evolution is, and maybe a little bit about why it might matter?”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah. So cultural evolution is this really cool idea that culture can change over time, it’s not static. And that the way it changes is actually Darwinian in nature. And so we can study this process of cultural change by borrowing ideas from Darwinian evolution and from the study of genetic change. This is not a new idea in human research. It’s a really widespread sort of way of trying to study the evolution of human culture and the way in which human culture has changed over time and become more complex, for example.

“But we’re now starting to realize that it also occurs in other animals and that we can study it. And that, like I mentioned at the beginning, it’s a potential way in which cultures can actually rapidly adapt to changing environments, giving animals or populations, the sort of ability to change their behavior and exhibit this behavioral flexibility and buffer in the face of rapidly changing environments, which are only becoming more rapidly changing as we modify them.”

Betsy Mason: “So we talked a little bit about how birdsong adapts to environments that are impacted by humans with this natural experiment we had with the pandemic. But, Julia, maybe you can talk a little bit about how that works. You mentioned that maybe they had already changed in response to the rising anthropogenic noise, and then they got a break.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yeah. In that case we can presume more, but we should verify this, that white crown sparrows may have had some range of flexibility in their amplitude, how loud they can sing and how complex they can sing as well. And so the human environment was just pushing the vocalizations in one direction or another. But surely that range itself can also evolve and did, to get where it is now. So with enough time and enough environmental pressure, you could see species whose range changes in response — vocal range, or range of any behavior — changes in response to the human environment or any environmental change. And that can happen in different ways that I would say are largely unknown.

“But if you think about, you can focus on different parts of the cultural transmission system. And one is the capacities of the learner. So how much cognitive flexibility do they have? How much motor flexibility do they have? And all of these things might be under separate evolutionary pressure. So it’s really complex.”

Lucy Aplin: “But also they might have cognitive biases so they can select. So we find that a lot of animals have sort of selective attention, so they’ll pay more attention to certain things. And then that will bias what they learn, which shapes the culture over time. So maybe they prefer to copy fathers, or higher song.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Right. Especially for birds that may have a kind of form of complex culture with different components, those components may interact. So if they have a complex social life, and then also this vocal learning, and then maybe they also have tool use, then it could get really complicated.”

Betsy Mason: “So I think during the pandemic, a lot of people started to notice birds more. Maybe they were spending more time at home, maybe it was quieter. And so they were asking, are the birds singing more? Or maybe they could just hear them more, but we’ve got the Great Backyard Bird Count coming up, starting this weekend. So a lot of people will be looking at birds. Is there something that they can look for to try to see some sort of cultural interaction among the birds that they might see in their own neighborhood?”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah.”

Betsy Mason: “What would they look for?”

Lucy Aplin: “Well, in terms of non-vocal behavior, look out for anything innovative because urban environments, or the environments we often live in, are sort of full of novelty for animals and that places kind of pressure or gives an opportunity and a challenge for some species. And I would say that a lot of the really interesting bird studies — so, say, that milk-bottle opening in tits the work we did, the bin opening in cockatoos, and some other ones — started with observations by people. Just private citizens, living in cities, observing wings, and getting in contact with people that might be interested in studying them. So yeah, all of those observations are really interesting and useful actually.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “I would encourage people also to consider using their phones to do citizen science to collect field recordings of any sounds they might hear. There are lots of places to upload them where you can share the songs with the whole world. So one example is xeno-canto, X-E-N-O-dash-C-A-N-T-O. And you can put information about where you were when you heard the sound. And the reason why this could be so useful is that for most songbird species, we know nothing about the vocal developmental process. So we don’t know — we just might have a few examples of adults singing — we don’t know how the juvenile sound when they’re learning. And that will be really useful information to understand their cultural transmission. Also, we may discover new regional differences. So you could be the person who discovers a new dialect in a birdsong. And the more sampling we have, the more we’ll know. And I think that citizen science is pretty much the only way to get this information.”

Lucy Aplin: “I’m reminded that there was a really cool, I’ve just forgotten the authors, unfortunately, but I’m pretty sure there was a recent study using xeno-canto to look at cultural evolution of new song types sweeping through Canadian sparrow populations. Because they were able to use songs collected across the breadth of North America, which just you can’t do on one person’s sort of geographic scale of studies, right?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yeah, no, I’m also forgetting the details, but yeah …

Betsy Mason: “We’ll put a link to that into these various ways that people can participate in the science of bird culture. So I think since we started a little bit late, we’ll go ahead a little bit over time. If you two can stick around for a little bit longer for some audience questions.

“So before we get to that, I want to thank everyone for tuning in and again, for sticking around while we sorted through our technical difficulties. So if you’re enjoying this event and want to come for future ones, be sure to sign up for the newsletter. We’ll put a link for that in the chat, and you can follow Knowable on Facebook and Twitter. Both of those will be in the chat as well.

“So let’s get to the questions. Let’s see, we’ve got one here: Is culture always separate by species or are there any multi-species communities with a stable cultural behavior?”

Lucy Aplin: “That is a fascinating question. There is some examples of alarm calls, I believe, in mixed-species flocks of birds.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yes, but I don’t think I have more details at the top of my head. There are definitely soundscapes that maybe people are starting to study the whole soundscape as opposed to individual species recordings. And this can start to get at the question of are the different species that make up like a rainforest soundscape interacting with each other. Certainly different species will divide into different parts of the soundscape. So they’ll take different frequencies, but then how those might interact and whether you can consider the whole soundscape a unit is a really interesting question.”

Lucy Aplin: “Sorry. I didn’t mean to jump in. Oh, there’s a fascinating series of studies by Tore Slagsvold at the University of Oslo, where he did something very similar, but for foraging behavior. So he actually cross-fostered chicks across species. So he raised blue tits in great tit nests and great tits in blue tit nests. And he found that when they grew up, they sang like their adopted species and they foraged like their adopted species. So it wasn’t that these two species share a culture, but actually they’re sort of dividing the space in the soundscape and in the foraging space, and that division is socially learned.”

Betsy Mason: “So I think that we published yesterday a story that I wrote about birdsong and bird communication and language. And I mentioned the study, I think you were talking about, with the alarm calls. So we’ll put a link to that story. If people want to look at that, it was Japanese tits sort of listening to their flock mates, the willow tits, and understanding what their various alarm calls mean. So let’s see, we’ve got another question: Do we think epigenetics plays a role in trans-generational transmission?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “I would say definitely. Yeah. And I know of some people who are starting to work on this. Really when we talk about genetics, we’re talking about epigenetics, because very few behaviors are just discrete, single traits. And most of the ways in which our genetics influence our behaviors are through development and interactions with the environment.”

Betsy Mason: “So we have question about hummingbirds. I’ve got a lot of those in my neighborhood and they are very vocal and they want to know, is this considered birdsong?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yes. Although hummingbirds are not in the songbird family, they are another group of birds that are vocal learners.”

Betsy Mason: “So they are learning those sounds like the songbirds learn their songs.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yeah. And it’s an example of convergent evolution, we think.”

Betsy Mason: “Cool. We have a question about mirror neuron systems. Is that something that people are looking at as a vehicle for cultural transmission?”

Lucy Aplin: “Controversial topic. Possibly. People kind of fall in two different schools of thought some people are, I think particularly maybe for some things like song, but in other areas, especially the sort of field I come from, we just sort of think that there’s nothing special about social learning. Actually, what social learning is, is just learning with another animal involved. And so that school of thought would suggest that we don’t need to be invoking anything particularly special, like mirror neurons. Maybe in the case of some forms of learning, but in most forms of learning, it’s most animals, even non-social animals can socially learn if given the opportunity to.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “I can add for the vocal learning, there are neurons in the songbird brain, in the motor part of the songbird brain, that respond to auditory stimulation. So it seems like the songbird brain is kind of organized the way that people imagine mirror neurons to be. That’s just how it works, that there’s this sensory mode integration that’s really part of the ability to modify your vocalizations in response to sounds heard. And that may also be part of human vocal learning, but we don’t really understand how that works at the neuronal level.”

Lucy Aplin: “I think it’s this really fascinating idea that the need to learn and the sort of as culture becomes really integrated in our ecology or in the species ecology, then of course, you’re going to build architecture in the brain that supports that. Whether that’s sort of a really long developmental flexibility and learning period, or whether it’s something like what you described with the song learning. We see that in humans and that we are very focused on faces for example, and that helps us learn. So I would say we would expect to see that, but that’s how I would think of architecture that supports learning rather than, something directly involved in learning.”

Betsy Mason: “We have somebody asking about memes and this concept of memes and meme complexes. Does that play into culture? Is there a memetic spreading, they said? Or is that the same thing? I think that there’s been some work on this with the white cross sparrows.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “So certainly I think that’s one way of thinking about cultural transmission that focuses on the trait, the meme, the behavior. And so I would say it’s not controversial to say yes, but it’s sort of, if you want to call it memetic depends on what you’re interested in. I don’t know, sorry, that’s a little vague.”

Lucy Aplin: “Well, early studies of cultural evolution did talk about memetics and it was included, but I think that people are starting to move away from it little bit, just because we are realizing that like with genetics, cultural transmission is not simple handing of packages. It helps to think about it like that, but we know that things change as they move through the brain and on to the next individual. So basically it’s just more complex.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Right. And there’s always going to be a component of kind of random mutation error, I think, in cultural transmission, which this idea about memetics doesn’t really acknowledge.”

Betsy Mason: “So we have a question from a bird rehabilitator who has raised baby birds, who asks, could we, as humans have an effect on culture and birds? For instance, fly catchers are taught to eat from a dish, will they carry this behavior into the wild when released? And I think Lucy touched on that a little bit with some of the intentional experiments they’re doing.”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah. So actually I think that how I would talk about this is how we can sort of harness the power of culture for good. So we know that cultures are really quick to perhaps to transmit and spread, but they also can be lost. And this is something that wasn’t always thought about, particularly in conservation. So it would say, “Oh, we can just reintroduce species to this location,” but we’re starting to realize that if that’s a species that exhibits culture, then that’s not always going to work because the behavior’s not going to match to the environment, and the behavior might not match to the wild individuals that you’re release them into. And so we can insert culture through training and through understanding the process of cultural evolution. And probably the single best example of this is one that probably most people here will know, which is using micro lights to train migration routes in hooping cranes. And that’s been a huge success.

“Migration routes in a lot of birds, but particularly in cranes and waterfowl, are cultural. They’re passed down through families and they’re shaped over many generations. And if you just release a bird, it will head in the sort of vague right trajectory, go north or south, but it won’t have that sort of specific tailored knowledge that really helps with those migration routes. But you can train it back into populations, and that’s becoming more and more part of conservation thinking, with a lot of species, with whales and primates and birds in particular, that we need to think about what the local culture is and how we can basically train that back into the populations that we release or that we’re trying to conserve.”

Betsy Mason: “So are there parts of birdsong that are out of the range of our hearing? Are they having a lot of secret conversations that we’re not privy to?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Every species has a different range of hearing, so yes. Most songbirds I think largely overlap with our hearing. But another example of culture that we haven’t really talked about today is learned vocalizations in bats. Where bats are usually, or many bats are using ultrasonic communication that we can’t hear. And also some dolphins, we probably can’t hear many of their vocalizations.”

Betsy Mason: “I think one of the things that I touched on in the birdsong and language story is that there are aspects of birdsong that we just don’t hear very well. That there are subtle changes in sort of the fine structure of a birdsong that may be really important to them that we can’t hear. So in that sense, there may be some secret conversations going on there, and there might be a lot more going on than we realize.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Absolutely. As scientists who study sounds that animals make, it’s really not enough just to record them. We need to do experiments to see how they’re perceived by other animals in order to try to understand what they mean and what information they’re paying attention to.”

Betsy Mason: “So another cross-species question, somebody mentions a mockingbird in their neighborhood has learned to imitate a red-tailed hawk. And I have heard this as well from, I think, Steller’s jays in my neighborhood. Is that intentional? Is there something more than just kind of hearing and imitating going on there?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “That’s a good question. We’d have to do some observations and experiments to find out. I don’t know of any demonstrated examples of mimics like mockingbirds incorporating sounds functionally in order to influence other birds with their terrifying hawk sounds, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”

Lucy Aplin: “Maybe another question, if that was cultural.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Yeah.”

Lucy Aplin: “You’d have to have a sort of local culture of mockingbirds doing that, where to call it something like that. Otherwise, it’s just a single innovation.”

Betsy Mason: “But with jays, could they be using it to spread a warning if they see a hawk? The jays in my neighborhood imitate both red-tailed hawks and redshouldered hawks well enough to fool the Merlin app. Speaking of that, if people on this talk don’t have the Merlin app, you should definitely try that out.

“So let’s see, do cultural behavior or communication patterns change after traumatic experiences? That’s an interesting question.”

Lucy Aplin: “I can jump in with one here, which I think is really interesting, but it’s a current study. So I don’t think I can point to a paper specifically. But there is discussions of cultures of aggression in elephant communities that have suffered sort of intense hunting and disruption of social systems where the large elephants are continually taken out. So I think this is a really understudied area, but I think it’s particularly in things like elephants or in some of the whale species, this could be, you know, it’s a fascinating further topic.”

Betsy Mason: “Somebody asked if …”

Lucy Aplin: “Fascinating.”

Betsy Mason: “Somebody asked if non-vocal species have culture.”

Lucy Aplin: “Yeah.”

Betsy Mason: “You don’t have to talk about it in order to spread culture?”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “No, and just as far as we know, sign languages are transmitted in much the same ways as vocal languages, spoken languages, in humans.

Lucy Aplin: “And also to add onto that, humans spend a lot of time teaching each other. We love to do that. Like we’re doing now, deliberately spreading knowledge. And so we tend to sort of translate that onto other species. But you can have quite complex or widespread cultures with no teaching or deliberate transmission involved at all, just with observation and copying of other individuals. And that does not have to be vocal.”

Betsy Mason: “I guess, as we’ve even mentioned, some examples of cultural spread of behavior, I guess they’re vocal species, but they’re not vocalizations with tool use and those sorts of things.”

Lucy Aplin: “Exactly.”

Betsy Mason: “So I think we’ve gone about 10 minutes past our scheduled time. So I think we’ll maybe stop there. We will have a lot of links and things for everybody afterwards. So thanks to everyone for joining this event. You guys, both of you have been great. It’s been fascinating. I learned a lot.

“So if those of you in the audience agree, please consider providing a donation. You can do that at This event was free thanks to philanthropic support. Thank you to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation for the support of Knowable. And to the Alicia Patterson foundation for supporting my reporting on animal behavior and cognition. And of course, special thanks to both of you for being here and joining in this fascinating discussion.

“So we’ll post this conversation, a video on the Knowable website where it will be free to view and share. You can look for it on the events page. Let’s see. So the best way to keep up with these discussions and everything Knowable is to sign up again for the newsletter or follow us on @knowablemag on Twitter. So I think that’s all for me, thanks again for sticking with us through the tech technical difficulties. And we hope to see you at a future event.”

Julia Hyland Bruno: “Thank you.”

Lucy Aplin: “Thank you.”