The cultural lives of birds

VIDEO: Culture was once thought to be uniquely human, but scientists are finding evidence that many birds are also cultural creatures. What does avian culture look like? And why does it matter?

Watch the replay of this event held on February 16, 2022

An explosion of research is a finding that culture — once thought to be exclusive to humans — is widespread among animals and plays an important part in their social lives and survival. Birds offer some of the most interesting and surprising examples of animal culture. Just as with human languages, songbirds have dialects that are learned and passed down through generations. Construction and use of tools by crows and problem solving by cockatoos also appear to be culturally learned and transmitted. Learn what researchers mean by bird culture, what’s known about how it develops and is sustained, and what it means for how we think about and relate to birds and other animals.


Lucy Applin, Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior

Lucy Aplin is a Max Planck Research Group Leader and heads the Institute’s Cognitive and Cultural Ecology Lab. Her research explores the interactions between cognition, sociality and ecology in birds, the process by which new behaviors emerge, spread and persist in animal populations and the ability of species to exhibit rapid behavioral adaptation, through diffusion of innovation and cultural inheritance. This work involves laboratory experiments, field studies of wild birds and state-of-the-art automated tracking technologies and analytical techniques. Aplin’s current projects include vocal learning and sociality in parrots, and the Clever Cockie Project, which focuses on society, culture and learning in Sulfur-crested Cockatoos.

Julia Hyland Bruno, Columbia University

Julia Hyland Bruno is an ethologist interested in the behavioral development of social animals like songbirds or humans that learn to communicate with each other. Despite the evolutionary distance between songbirds and humans, there are intriguing similarities between birdsong learning and language learning. Her research explores how communication patterns among individuals influence social organization patterns with a focus on the social dynamics of learned communication among songbirds. Hyland Bruno received her PhD in biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience from the City University of New York, where she studied the rhythmic patterning of zebra finch vocal learning. She is currently a Presidential Scholar in society and neuroscience at Columbia.


betsy mason, science journalist and contributing editor Knowable Magazine

Betsy is a 2022 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow researching how the science of animal minds is changing how we think about us and them. She has a master’s degree in geology from Stanford University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2015–16, she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.


This event is one in a series supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Knowable Magazine is a product of annual reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable Magazine comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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