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Songbird Culture

June 26, 2018

How a small songbird’s cultural traditions persist for more than a thousand years.


(Robert Lachlan)

Swamp sparrow. (Robert Lachlan)


Songbird cultural traditions. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(Swamp sparrow song)

A thousand years ago, inhabitants of eastern North America might have heard swamp sparrows singing a song just like this, according to a study in Nature Communications. That’s because the songbirds, like us, form stable cultural traditions, passing songs down through the generations. Queen Mary University researcher Robert Lachlan and his team developed computer models to estimate how long different songs have persisted.

ROBERT LACHLAN (Queen Mary University):

So what we found was that the commoner songs were on average 500 years old, and quite a lot of them were over a thousand years old. 


That’s because young male sparrows copy songs with high precision, perhaps signaling their good health to females. And, they preferentially learn common songs over new ones, a type of cultural conformity once thought to be uniquely human. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Susanne Bard