scarlet macaws
Credit: Getty Images

It was mid-April, and the petals from Washington, D.C.’s famed cherry blossoms had just fallen to the ground. Several weeks into my coronavirus self-isolation, the most frequent visitors to my third-story apartment were songbirds that alighted on my tiny balcony—the doves, starlings, blue jays, mockingbirds, and, most frequently, sparrows, shrilling and swirling as they searched for mates. 

Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families,
Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace
by Carl Safina
Henry Holt, 375 pp.

I spend a lot of time staring out the window nowadays. While COVID-19 sweeps the planet, infecting millions of people, the birds’ courtships continue uninterrupted. I can’t decide whether to find solace or malice in their unchanged rituals. Nature is neither cruel nor kind, but simply carries on.

Chief among the sparrows is one I’ve named Puffy, for his glorious abundance of feathers. On an overcast Sunday afternoon, Puffy lands on the railing and cocks his neck sideways as he preens his chest feathers, making sure everything is ready for the big show. And then he chirps—sometimes faster, sometimes slower; sometimes he punctuates a high-pitched refrain with a gruffer note at the end. He hops a bit along the railing, perhaps checking the acoustics.

Now a female has appeared, light brown and smaller. Their courtship is brief and clumsy. Puffy is nearly a perfect sphere, with russet-brown feathers on his head. I can’t help but imagine the iconic British nature film narrator David Attenborough making gently humorous observations.

But the remarkable thing is that Puffy wasn’t born a chanteur; his skill, as with many other songbirds, was learned. Several decades ago, scientists assumed that most birds and other animals were born with a set of innate skills, and then simply lived their lives according to instinct—as mechanical as a wooden cuckoo in a clock. But while some utterances are innate (much like a human scream), birds’ mating songs are generally learned. And depending on where a bird learned to sing, and from whom, their tunes may vary considerably, even among the same species.

Birds that scientists consider “vocal learners”—including sparrows, canaries, zebra finches, and many others—gain the ability to sing by imitating the birds by whom they are raised. It takes practice. Local variations are passed down between generations, like family stories. Sometimes knowing the hometown song is an advantage in finding a sweetheart. Perhaps that’s because it implies other shared preferences, like valuing the same twigs for nests, or preferring the same berries for snacks, or supporting the Nationals.

While birds were once assumed to be, well, bird brained, scientists now marvel at the complexity of what they can learn—and how varied individual communities are. Some birds learn new songs each mating season, and others, like mockingbirds, can imitate the songs of many other species. Parrots can famously mimic human speech. This is especially remarkable when you consider that our closest genetic relatives, the great apes, never developed such sophisticated vocal communication. Many scientists believe that birdsong may be the closest analog to human language in the nonhuman world, perhaps rivaled only by whales’ and dolphins’ underwater sonatas. 

The ecologist and nature writer Carl Safina takes these ideas of generational learning even further in his new book, Becoming Wild. Not only do animals develop distinct strategies for living and communicating in different locations, he argues, but the useful habits learned and preserved through generations constitute distinct “animal cultures.” There is no single way that sperm whales rear their young, or that scarlet macaws select mates, for instance. How they live depends on what they learn.

Here’s how Safina explains it: “The natural does not always come naturally. Many animals must learn from their elders how to be who they were born to be. They must learn the local quirks, how to make a living, and how to communicate effectively in a particular place among their particular group.” He’s anticipated that some readers may object to the word culture, or insist that such knowledge is a uniquely human attribute. But we’re not so special, he argues. “Learning ‘how we live’ from others is human. But learning from others is also raven. Ape and whale. Parrot. Even honeybee.”

Recent scientific research indicates that many species have more complex minds than we once assumed. So why not grant that some animals may also have learned traditions, perhaps even cultures? A recent trickle of academic articles makes a similar case, but Safina has written one of the first popular and accessible books to present this idea to a general audience. “We become who we are not by genes alone,” he writes. “Culture is also a form of inheritance. Culture stores important information not in gene pools but in minds.” 

The mission of Becoming Wild is twofold: to document how cultural learning works, focusing on three intelligent species—sperm whales, parrots, and chimpanzees—and to show why that matters for how we think about conservation. 

In these early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Safina’s travel seems dreamlike and luxurious. He reports from the Peruvian Amazon and from a ship traversing the Caribbean, among other sites. His work is deeply grounded in science, but he writes with passion and a sense of humor. For instance, he observes that scarlet macaws in Peru have figured out how to distinguish tourists from locals, knowing that the visitors are likely to bear it with more equanimity if the big parrots descend noisily at breakfast to snatch some pancakes.

Sixty years ago, Jane Goodall observed that some chimpanzees had learned to use sticks to fish termites out of a mound—a simple demonstration of “tool use.” Before that, many researchers believed that only humans were capable of using tools. Since then, scientists have documented that different groups of chimpanzees have fashioned sundry tools to exploit their various local habitats. Some use rock anvils to crack open nuts; others don’t eat nuts at all. Some use moss sponges to soak up water.

These local variations are not only fascinating, but also vital to the chimps’ survival. It’s not easy to guess that a tasty morsel lies within the hard shell of a nut. You have to learn it from someone else. If there’s no one around to teach such tricks to youngsters, the knowledge dies out—and, with it, the access to the food source. 

Safina wants scientists to re-frame how they generally talk about conservation and biodiversity. “Ecologists usually think of biodiversity as having three main levels: the ‘genetic diversity’ within any particular species; ‘species diversity,’ or the number of species in a given region; and ‘habitat diversity,’ ” he explains. “But does that cover it? Not really. There’s a fourth level we are just becoming aware of: cultural diversity. Skills, traditions, and dialects that animals have innovated and passed along culturally are crucial to helping many populations survive and perpetuate.”

While Safina is evidently fascinated by animal ingenuity—his last book, Beyond Words, was about nonhuman minds—he is also making a pragmatic argument. Most conservation programs set goals around the number of individuals or species present. Often those targets are too low, he believes, leaving little margin for error in the event of further catastrophes, such as outbreaks of infectious diseases. Diversity, both genetic and cultural, allows species the best chances of adapting to new circumstances. “What I do hope is that conservationists can advance the case for preserving wide cultural diversity and ease the public out of a perilous satisfaction with precariously minimal populations,” he writes.

Safina’s aim is to raise ideas and question assumptions, not to lay out precise policy blueprints. But there are a handful of real-world examples of conservation programs that have stumbled, and sometimes adapted, after initially failing to account for the fact that many young animals need to learn from past generations. 

For instance, efforts to reintroduce bighorn sheep in parts of the American West revealed that the animals aren’t born knowing how or where to migrate to take advantage of the changing foraging landscape in different seasons, as biologists documented in a 2018 research paper in Science. Of 80 translocated sheep, 73 at first showed no inclination to migrate. The seven sheep that did were ones that had previously been integrated into established large herds. The researchers ascribed the sheep’s knowledge to “cultural transmission.”

Sometimes conservationists have tried to troubleshoot the cultural learning question in advance. Because whooping cranes learn to migrate socially, scientists faced a puzzle when attempting to reintroduce the birds back to areas of the U.S. where they had become locally extinct. The solution was to fly light aircraft between western Florida and Wisconsin, training the cranes—with the planes acting, in effect, as surrogate parents—to follow on their first northward migration.

While it’s handy that the cranes could learn to trail planes, it might not be so simple for humans to teach wild chimps how to crack open nuts. Or to explain to wild elephants where to find water after a long drought—something that experienced elephant matriarchs can do, drawing on their famously long memories. In general, the simplest conservation strategy is to protect enough animals to allow species to learn from their own kind.

The idea of cultural learning in animals is becoming more mainstream, at least among field biologists. Last year, 12 researchers with expertise in the behavior of whales, gorillas, birds, and other species coauthored a “policy forum”—a reported editorial—in Science, making the case that “animal cultures matter for conservation.” 

The challenge is always in translating such research into policy, especially at a time when global pandemic recovery will likely drain away government resources and attention. But perhaps Safina’s book will help in that regard, by appealing to a larger audience and reminding readers to contemplate the natural world as they think about their own points of vulnerability and resilience.

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Christina Larson is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and an award-winning science and environment journalist who has reported from five continents.