Evidence for teaching in an Australian songbird

Hollis Taylor*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Abstract

Song in oscine birds (as in human speech and song) relies upon the rare capacity of vocal learning. Transmission can be vertical, horizontal, or oblique. As a rule, memorization and production by a naïve bird are not simultaneous: the long-term storage of song phrases precedes their first vocal rehearsal by months. While a wealth of detail regarding songbird enculturation has been uncovered by focusing on the apprentice, whether observational learning can fully account for the ontogeny of birdsong, or whether there could also be an element of active teaching involved, has remained an open question. Given the paucity of knowledge on animal cultures, I argue for the utility of an inclusive definition of teaching that encourages data be collected across a wide range of taxa. Borrowing insights from musicology, I introduce the Australian pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) into the debate surrounding mechanisms of cultural transmission. I probe the relevance and utility of mentalistic, culture-based, and functionalist approaches to teaching in this species. Sonographic analysis of birdsong recordings and observational data (including photographs) of pied butcherbird behavior at one field site provide evidence that I assess based on criteria laid down by Caro and Hauser, along with later refinements to their functionalist definition. The candidate case of teaching reviewed here adds to a limited but growing body of reports supporting the notion that teaching may be more widespread than is currently realized. Nonetheless, I describe the challenges of confirming that learning has occurred in songbird pupils, given the delay between vocal instruction and production, as well as the low status accorded to anecdote and other observational evidence commonly mustered in instances of purported teaching. As a corrective, I press for an emphasis on biodiversity that will guide the study of teaching beyond human accounts and intractable discipline-specific burdens of proof.

Original languageEnglish
Article number593532
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Volume12
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.

Keywords

  • birdsong
  • culture
  • pied butcherbird
  • teaching
  • tutoring
  • vocal learning

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