WLU prof looks at the real ‘tweet’


What do humans and songbirds have in common? They both “tweet” for social communication.

Social behaviour such as “tweeting” by songbirds can have great implications in the animal kingdom. David White, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, studies the brown-headed cowbird, its songs and the intricate social complexities surrounding it.

The cowbird — a species of songbird — must learn a very specific song necessary for communication, courtship, territorial defence and more. And almost all the songbirds need to be taught their songs by their fathers.

“Every other songbird on the planet has to learn its song when it’s in the nest,” said White. But, he added, this is not the case for the cowbird.

In fact, it can develop its song without ever coming in contact with another cowbird. White believes this may likely be due to genetic programming that has produced an innate instinct.

To investigate this, an experiment was done where cowbirds were hand-raised so they were never exposed to other cowbirds. And as expected, these cowbirds still developed proper songs. But what was most striking were the following consequences of developing a song in isolation.

“Put that male out with cowbirds that have grown up in other flocks of cowbirds and he sings his song — females love it. But the males react aggressively and kill him,” said White. “The song’s too good.”

It turns out there is a lot of delicate social learning involved in a cowbird singing a song. And this social learning is critical for cohesive functioning and survival within a social structure.

“It’s not just about the song. It’s about all the things that go into being a good cowbird.”

These kinds of observations of social dynamics are diverse and widespread. An exemplary illustration is found in studies detailing the social development of juvenile cowbirds.

Juveniles that grow up alongside adults develop the stereotypical traits of aggression and monogamy. Juveniles that are raised separatley, however, develop contrary traits of non-aggression and promiscuity.

“I didn’t think evolution would have favoured such a dynamic system where the same bird could come out in two very different ways depending on its early developmental experiences,” said White.

The implications of such findings can run deep. But when asked whether there were implications for humans, White jokingly replied, “Do I think that if I raised a bunch of baby humans in my aviaries without adults, they would be promiscuous and not aggressive? I don’t know. I’m not planning on trying that.”

But White said the demands of living in a group are very general across species. They all require competing, cooperating and navigating the social environment, so there may be useful knowledge to be learned about people as well.

Today, White continues his research on cowbirds that began back in 2000 with a focus on how females are influenced by the social environment.

“The males are just a measure of the females. They’re just reacting to the females. The females are running the show,” he concluded.


By James Shin

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