Forty songs of a milk thief

Great Tit, Bridge Meadows April 2015. Image Copyright © Mike Burns-Stark 2015.

Great Tit, Bridge Meadows April 2015. Image Copyright © Mike Burns-Stark 2015.

Take a spring evening stroll through the meadows off Brewery Lane in Bridge this week and your attention may just be drawn to the repetitive ‘tea-cher… tea-cher… tea-cher…” song of a Great Tit sitting on a branch looking out upon the two bridges over the Nailbourne. This song, rather like the sound of a squeaky wheelbarrow, is the male bird asserting its right to the territory. Visit on another day and you may think you hear the song replaced by the song of another bird, but no, this is the same bird pretending to be another Great Tit so that any intruders will think the area is already too crowded and will go elsewhere.

The Great Tit is familiar to many of us of a certain generation as the bird which pecked holes in milk bottles in the early morning as they sat on the doorstep after delivery. This, it must be noted, was a peculiarly British activity of the 20th Century, not something which Great Tits have been doing across the world for thousands of years. So our British birds were not just following genetic instincts, they were innovating. Clearly this local behaviour is an adaptation of local birds with an acquired knowledge of their habitat: hence there really is such a thing as a British Great Tit with its own home grown skills and habits which are different from foreign birds.

Another example of this use of skills is the language of song. It is believed that these birds can sing up to forty different songs or variations of a song including stringing different phrases together to give different meanings, and it has been proven that they can actually tell other members of their family what kind of predators are around the nest using what is effectively a local bird language.

It is because of such clever adaptation to their living conditions that the Great Tit is of much interest to scientists across the world. These birds use intelligence and technical innovation to improve their survival in any given environment but, more than this, they pass on these skills in the form of a clearly defined and developed local culture so that future generations will learn the specific behaviour required to survive and prosper in that area. Why is this of particular interest? Because it’s exactly what we humans do.

Releasing findings of studies at Oxford University in 2014, Dr Lucy Aplin indicated:

“Great Tits pass on traditions through the generations and adapt to fit in with the local culture when they move. It is the first time such cultural conformity, which is thought to be a key factor in the evolution of complex culture among humans, has been seen in any wild animals apart from primates.”


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