Innovation: Connecting Birds & People

In the many annals of ornithology, one of the hallmark discoveries is how intelligent birds really are. Crow communication, for example, is just a few criteria short of fitting the definition of language. A Finch in the Galapagos (okay, it’s really a tanager), uses tools. Green Herons use bread as bait to bring in fish. We could say confidently that most birds exhibit complex social structures, sophisticated foraging strategies, and unique methods of communication. As a class, birds are stacked with brain power.

But one question in particular has caught scientists’ attention recently. It’s one of those tantalizing questions that ties volumes of what we know about bird intelligence into one sentence: do birds innovate?

A Woodpecker Finch using a tool in experimental conditions. © 2010 California Academy of Sciences

Well first, let’s start by defining innovation. Innovation is to “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” Really, there are two important parts here: to modify and introduce. Innovation is to tinker with the way the world (or you) works, and then to share that with others, who then go on to use that change. It implies creativity on the part of the innovator, and learning on the part of everyone else. This learning is why innovation is such a buzz word in our culture; we crave innovation, crave changes, and when a powerful or relevant change is introduced, it can have a huge effect on our culture.

So let’s review. Key words in innovation are modify, introduce, learn, and culture. Good work.

Now let’s apply that to birds by taking apart the original question (do birds innovate). Do birds have the capacity to modify some established method? Do these birds then introduce that modification to other birds? Do those other birds learn modification? Can that modification spread through the culture of an avian social group?

Wow, these are some exciting questions. We know that birds are intelligent, but just imagine if the culture of, say, a familial flock of passerines paralleled human culture’s response to innovation. We have our Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or Thomas Edisons and Henry Fords, our Francis Bacons and Benjamin Franklins; what of birds?

Well, it turns out that in social birds, innovation is very much a reality.

A recent study published in the journal Nature aimed to answer some of these questions about just how much birds are influenced by innovation. Rather than focusing on the experimentally tricky question of whether birds innovate, they instead focused on whether social avian culture parallels human culture in relation to innovation. Observationally, it should be relatively easy to answer the question of whether birds innovate. It seems relatively easy to conclude that if you watched crows for a long time, you would observe some sort of new behavior. Crows, for example, may observe a human tossing aside food, and then make those leftovers a frequent part of their foraging. There are numerous other examples; the meat of the question, then lies in the realm of whether or not birds learn that behavior.

Great Tit. Image credit: Luc Viatour /

This learning is exactly where the Nature study (from here on out, Aplin et al.) focused. They sought to understand how foraging traditions — go-to methods of foraging that are learned from other individuals — are established in a social species (Parus major, a.k.a. Great Tit, a Eurasian counterpart to North American chickadees). Let’s dive in:

The authors of Aplin et al. started by introducing alternative foraging methods (the innovation) into individual groups of Great Tits, doing so by teaching two individuals per group. Thereafter, they tracked individuals of the group to determine the outcome of that “seeded innovation”. If Great Tits don’t learn innovations in the way described above, the seeded innovation would be limited to the individual it was taught to, and in all likelihood, would fall out of use. If they do learn innovation, then the behavior would spread across the group and would become a foraging tradition.

So what happened? What are the results? This is where it gets fascinating. The seeded innovation spread rapidly in each group, being utilized by an average of 75% of the individuals in all groups. This means, to fill in that number, that 414 individuals were observed utilizing the seeded innovation 57,909 times. By the end of the experiment, the groups were heavily inclined to use the seeded innovation. Not only that, but the seeded innovation lasted through 2+ generations even with high turnover rates in each group. And BOOM! We have experimental evidence of foraging tradition establishment. Pat on the back, get yourself something nice, meet for happy hour to celebrate.

But wait, there’s more! Scientists have a funny habit of squeezing as much “interestingness” out of their data as possible, and in this case, they did just that. Aplin et al.’s data also demonstrated social conformity. Just like it’s cool in human culture to have the latest iPhone, it became cool in Great Tit culture to use the seeded innovation. After first learning the innovation, the birds continually chose its use of their use of their personal learning. In other words, tits deliberately used the “cool” innovation over what, in their experience, may actually be a better foraging strategy. In this way, the tradition enforces social conformity. Great Tits in flocks experiencing the seeded innovation consistently conformed to the social norm of that group by using their innovation more than their own strategies. Sounds eerily…human. Or perhaps we’re eerily bird. I’ll leave that one up to you.

This is a stunning discovery. Why? This is the first time that anyone has demonstrated the existence of social norms in foraging strategies. Ultimately, to use the words of Aplin et al., this is an extremely “complex cultural behavior”, and it is found in as ostensibly simple an activity as foraging. What’s more, this discovery suggests that perhaps we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg. If as well known a species as Great Tit exhibits a sense of cultural norms that we’ve missed all these years, what other species do the same? Imagine the species that may be living with cultural norms right under our noses!

In all likelihood, there’s a lot we’re missing. But don’t lose optimism. This also means there’s a lot yet to be found. There are many behavioral discoveries just waiting for people like you and I; we just have to get out there and look.

In behavior, you never know what you will find. But I assure that whatever it is, it will change the way we look at living things, at nature, and at ourselves. Studying behavior is an intimately human endeavor, liable to churn out ideas that inspire us to reflect in new ways.

So maybe the question shouldn’t be “what will I discover?” Maybe instead it should be “who will I be?”

Cheers, everyone. Thanks for reading.

Nature beckons. What’s out there for you to discover?