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Those Avaricious Avians!

You don’t get reporting like this anymore! A friend shared this video which got me reminiscing about those days of being woken up by the electric hum of the milk float and the clink of glass bottles on the doorstep. I reflected sadly how these days, many of us drive our petrol cars to the shops to buy milk in plastic containers that can be recycled at a cost rather than reused. It also sent me off down my first rabbit hole for this blog – the question of how creatures learn and pass on information to each other.

A mysterious phenomena struck the south of England in the early 1920’s and soon spread across the rest of the UK and Europe. This was back in the days of doorstep milk delivery and bottles were being raided for their cream. No one was quite sure who was behind this ‘crime wave’ and it was often reported that local youths were responsible.  Eventually; Blue Tits were identified as the culprits and even though a variety of different bottle tops were tried, none were effective at preventing the thefts and the Blue Tits continued to raid the morning milk – even waiting for the milkmen to arrive to make their deliveries!  

What caused this behaviour to spread so quickly? How did the Blue Tits in Carmarthen know how to do something that was originally reported in Hampshire? It appeared that ‘cultural transmission’ was taking place.

Memes, like this one, are a fine example of cultural transmission. The word ‘meme’ is widely used on the internet but was made popular by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how information can be self-replicated (like genes in biology) to explain human behaviour and cultural evolution. It comes from the Greek mimeme – meaning imitated thing.

So were the Blue Tits learning by imitating the behaviour of other Blue Tits? Those of us who have children or pets know that learning is not always that simple. If only teaching your child how to tie their own shoe laces was as simple as showing them once how to do it properly so they can just copy it and get it right. Observation showed that in the case of the Blue Tits, when birds that knew how to open bottle tops were observed by birds that didn’t know how to open them, the observers were given a clue as to how to go about opening bottles that they copied, they learned how to focus on the bottle top and fiddle about with it, but they still had to work out their own solution to actually reach the cream inside.

This study found that trained birds that observed other birds in the experiment and copied their technique, problem solved a puzzle more quickly than those that found their own solution. Birds were also keen to ‘fit in’ and untrained birds that could already successfully problem solve often changed their approach to that of the trained birds.

Research carried out by Oxford University’s Wytham Woods Tit Project found that interestingly, the knowledge of how to solve puzzles re-emerged as a learned “tradition” even more strongly when the puzzles were taken away for nine months and then returned. Although less than half the original birds who had learned the puzzle solving technique remained, they and the new naïve birds demonstrated an extremely pronounced preference toward using the original solution that had spread previously, rather than finding alternative solutions.

Overall, the study by Aplin et al found evidence for a relationship between social learning and innovativeness. Most birds chose to fit in but it wasn’t essential for success. Although information about how to go about solving a problem was passed on, the actual solution was frequently unique. This ability to find your own way of solving a problem is essential for any species, not just birds. Mavericks within a species can often find innovative solutions and are essential for surviving in changing environments. Blue Tits don’t have a source of high fat food readily available on people’s doorsteps anymore and they have different problems to solve. Birds are incredibly adaptable – woodpeckers will drum on drain pipes because they create a louder noise than some trees and all sorts of birds will strip putty from windows to eat the linseed oil. I like to remind myself that in a world that changes so frequently, it’s good to watch how others do things but its good to find your own solution too.