How New Birds Learn Old Tricks

Learning isn't just a human trait—birds do it too.

Do you tie your shoes with bunny ears or loop-and-swoop? It probably depends on how you were taught. Birds learn and remember behaviors, too. A recent experiment on wild Great Tits in the U.K.'s Oxfordshire forests shows that these birds learn foraging tricks from their peers, and then pass them on to future generations.

To study bird learning, ornithologists from Oxford University caught two males from each of eight different wild Great Tit populations in the Wytham Woods. The birds were then tasked with opening a puzzle box containing a mealworm treat. Some of the pairs learned to open the puzzle to the right, while others opened the puzzle to the left. 

Once the training was complete, the researchers released all the birds to their original populations. They then watched as the birds immediately began teaching their fellow birds how to use the puzzles scientists had scattered within their territory. Within four weeks the knowledge was spread, and the birds taught their populations to open the boxes in the direction they had learned. The birds continued opening the puzzle in the taught direction even after realizing they could successfully find the worm by opening it either way.

"It's as if the birds ignore their own experience in favor of what they see the majority of other birds in the local population doing," says Ben Sheldon, one of the lead researchers.

The researchers were most surprised to see the learning was not short lived. After the four weeks of observation, they took the puzzles out of the woods. One year later, they brought them back and Sheldon and his team observed the birds open them the same way.

By that time, only 40 percent of the original population remained. The 'tradition,' as the researchers called it, was passed down to a new generation.

"There was still a local 'memory' for the behaviors that we'd spread, [and] we found that it was actually even stronger," Sheldon says.

When birds moved between populations with a different 'tradition,' they would adapt the opening method of the surrounding population. Other species of tit began catching on, too.

The researchers now hope to uncover which behaviors birds pick up from one another and why.