What makes human cultural traditions unique? One common answer is that we are better copycats than other species, which allows us to pass our habits and ways of life down through the generations without losing or forgetting them. But a new study of birdsong finds that swamp sparrows are good impersonators too. And by faithfully copying the most popular songs, these birds create time-honored song traditions that can be just as long-lasting as human traditions, researchers say. In fact, swamp sparrow song traditions often last hundreds of years, with some songs going back further than that. The slow trill of the swamp sparrow can be heard in marshes and wetlands across eastern and central North America. A gray-breasted bird with brownish wings, the swamp sparrow attracts mates and defends his territory with songs built from two- to five-note snippets, repeated over and over. Researchers observed decades ago that swamp sparrows living in different places sing slightly different songs. Birds in New York might tend to sing in three-note repeats while their counterparts in Minnesota favor four, or combine the same basic notes in a different order. Young birds learn the local customs in the first weeks of life by imitating their elders. But while similar cultural traditions -- shared behaviors that are learned from others and passed from one generation to the next -- have been observed in all sorts of animals, the thinking has been that human traditions are more likely to last.
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