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A bird which is becoming extinct because it is losing its culture

Regent honeyeater

The regent honeyeater is a very attractive Australian songbird. For thousands of years and for generation after generation they have sung beautifully to attract females. The males learn their song from older, adult males. Because there are so few honeyeaters left juveniles are unable to learn their song from adults. Instead, they are copying the songs of other species of birds causing them to be spurned by their potential mates. This in turn is leading to their gradual extinction. It is a vicious downward spiral.

Regent honeyeater

Regent honeyeater. Photos: Pixabay.

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The research which discovered this was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It is suggested that this story is a cautionary tale of an animal that faces possible extinction because it has lost its culture. I’m sure that there are analogies in the human world. What about the culture of America’s native Indians? Wasn’t that partially destroyed by incoming European settlers? The Native American is not extinct but perhaps their race was severely damaged by the substantial loss of their culture. Is that a fair comment?

There is certainly an analogy in the way culture is handed down from one generation to the next in the human species. Humans learn language and stories while honeyeater’s learn to sing by listening to older birds.

Ross Crates, the lead scientist in the study who is from the Australian National University said: “Young males are losing their opportunity to learn traditional songs because there are ever-fewer older males for them to learn from. This is worrying, because males use their songs to impress females. Regent honeyeaters have become so rare that some males don’t know what songs they should be singing.”

The study recorded the behaviour of honeyeaters between 2015 and 2019. Young honeyeaters don’t learn from their fathers when they are in the nest but from other birds as they have fledged. It appears that the entire population has declined to an estimated 200 to 400 birds dispersed sparsely over more than 100,000 mi² miles.

About 25% of juvenile males had birdsong that differed significantly from that which was expected. About 10% failed to sing any honeyeater songs. They learned entirely from other species. Those honeyeaters which failed to sing the proper songs were much less likely to find a mate.

“Females tend to avoid pairing and nesting with males that sing weird songs”. – Ross Crates.

‘Animal culture’ refers to songs, feeding strategies and such things as migration routes. Ross Crates believes that conservationists should devise ways to preserve and maintain animal traditions and cultures in order to prevent extinctions.