Certain motifs in swamp sparrow songs can last hundreds, even thousands of years—evidence of a cultural tradition in the birds. Christopher Intagliata reports.
Scientists have now used those swamp sparrow regional "dialects," together with computer simulations, to extrapolate how the sparrow's songs have changed and evolved over time. And they found that certain song motifs could date back hundreds, even thousands of years.
"That's where, frankly, it blew me away, I have to say." Steve Nowicki, a biologist at Duke University. "If Leif Erikson had taken time once he discovered North America to get as far in as northwestern Pennsylvania, where I just was last week, he would have heard some—not many, but some of the same song types I was just listening to."
The study is in the journal Nature Communications. [Robert F. Lachlan, Oliver Ratmann & Stephen Nowicki, Cultural conformity generates extremely stable traditions in bird song]
Passing learned information from generation to generation—that sounds a lot like culture.
"It is culture. These birds are showing a persistence of cultural tradition that is heretofore unknown and matches that of the best cultural persistence we might see in human culture."
But sparrows aren't as cognitively complex as humans, he says, implying that you don’t need human-type smarts to develop cultural traditions.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]