Bird Intelligence: Great Tit

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In 1871, anthropologist E. B. Tylor defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."

But maybe Tylor was wrong in limiting his definition to humans.

In 1929, Blue Tit's began prying the foil tops off English milk bottles and drinking the cream -- a trick that spread so quickly that it could only have been transmitted "horizontally" though observation and mimicry.

Now, in a remarkable experiment involving the Tit's larger cousin, a handful of Oxford zoologists have measured exactly how quickly cultural knowledge can spread among birds - as shown in this video.


Sixteen Great Tits were captured from eight different populations and trained for four days on a puzzle box that taught them nudge to a block aside to gain access to a meal worm. Half were trained to push the blue side, and the other half to nudge the red side. The birds were then released back into the wild to see how their knowledge spread.

20 days later, untutored Tit populations were slowly learning the new behavior. But in locations that included trained birds, over 75% of the wild birds adopted the feeding technique according to an S-shaped learning curve that showed the Tits were learning though observation rather than experience. The "cultural" habit of pushing the blue or red side was found to be remarkably stable among the different locations, with some birds changing their original behavior to conform with their peers. Two years later, "red or blue" preferences still strong at each site, even though only a few of the original birds were left. Network analysis showed the information flowed exactly as it does through social networks on the internet.

Are the birds in your neighborhood rugged individualists, or part of a cultural society? A simple experiment might yield the answer -- but to design it, you may have to overcome your own cultural prejudice!

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