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If they don’t have the right developmental context, they’re not going to act like cowbirds.

…and their Unexpected Consequences

Yet, the entry into cowbird society is not a foregone conclusion. Mistakes can happen and when the usual social and environmental variables are not in place, cowbirds can become something other than your typical cowbird.
In fact what initially drew Kohn to the lab of West and King, he explains, was a study in which the researchers sought to find out what happened to male cowbirds raised in the company of canaries before being introduced to the company of female cowbirds. For one year, the males did not have access to female cowbirds. They were then were put into aviaries with canaries and receptive female cowbirds. The results: cowbirds who thought they were canaries. Indifferent to female cowbirds, the male cowbirds only pursued the canaries.

“If they don’t have the right developmental context,” says Kohn, “they’re not going to act like cowbirds. They don’t have a genetic safety net that tells them how to behave.”

Kohn would now like to determine whether this form of social organization extends to other birds and has introduced two new species to the Farm, quail and budgies. Once again, he is counting degrees of sociability, to record who interacts with whom, how often and how selectively, to see if the numbers add up in similar ways and into similar social configurations.

Introvert or extrovert?

Counting out the social interactions of individual birds will illuminate collective patterns. More than the sum of their parts, social networks become the central platform for processes of development and learning, and for keeping these processes stable across time. As West and King describe it, these networks are a distributed system for success, much like an RBI in baseball. A hitter in baseball cannot get an RBI without the hitters ahead of him, the skills of the pitcher and opposing fielders, and a manager who knows which batting order will work best. Likewise, the success of a single cowbird depends on numerous social and environmental factors working in tandem.

As Kohn explains, “Social networks provide the stage for socialization and development, for both humans and (other) animals. Processes that create social behavior are probably very similar across all social species. But of course specific behaviors between species are very different.”

A Lingering Question

What does all of this imply, if anything, about the fixity of male and female social behavior, albeit among non-human animals?

“To me,” says Kohn, “it shows that it’s not female or male behaviors that are fixed. It’s the social network that is stable. Yet at the same time, social systems are constantly renewing themselves. Let’s say you have a change such as a depleted food source. That might change the social network in a way that is self-perpetuating.

“Change happens,” he adds, “when there is variation within social systems. It’s not necessarily a matter of genes, it’s that the social network provides the conditions for learning. It’s fixed in the sense that it’s a process that keeps on happening. But that doesn’t mean it’s inevitable.”