Social learning is defined as “the capacity to acquire information from other individuals,” and has been observed in a variety of species, including many bird species (Danel et al., 2023, p. 153). Birds have proven to be especially prone to social learning, demonstrating this phenomenon in multiple avian families and biological contexts. However, the family that contains hornbills and hoopoes, Bucerotiformes, has been highly under-studied due to their conservation statuses and sheer size of the birds. The Southern ground-hornbill is a model organism for studying social learning during foraging because they feed on a variety of small animals, often hunt in groups, live in social groups, exhibit high parental investment, and they are also opportunistic scavengers.
In this study, the researchers used a three-group, two-action structure to test the social learning capacity of 11 captive Southern ground-hornbills. The study utilized a foraging apparatus which is basically a box with a door that the ground-hornbills either slid the door open or pulled the door from top to bottom for a food reward. The three groups prescribed in the study were 1) exposed to a trained demonstrator which slid the door open to the right, 2) exposed to a trained demonstrator who pulled the door from top to bottom, or 3) were presented with the foraging apparatus without a demonstrator for an asocial control group. The researchers also made several predictions for the outcomes of these experiments based on past studies. First, they predicted that learning would only occur in the groups presented with a demonstrator, and only those groups would be able to open the apparatus. They also predicted that the subjects would learn via imitation learning and scrounging behavior would also occur.
Overall, the results of this study were extremely successful in that they aligned with the predictions of the researchers. Both test groups showed rapid learning of the food-finding behavior when all subjects were able to open the apparatus after observing the demonstrator and repeat the behavior multiple times. However, the subjects did not demonstrate imitation learning because they did not use the demonstrator’s technique more than they would by chance, but utilized alternate techniques to open the apparatus. Additionally, those in the control group were unable to complete the task and only one subject even made contact with the apparatus at all. They also did observe scrounging behavior, but it did not interfere with the subjects’ ability to find food.
This study was only the second to ever be done on social learning in Bucerotiformes and showed extremely promising results. Although the subjects did not exhibit imitation learning, because they were all still able to open the apparatus this suggests that copying is not necessary under their natural condition. This implies that the ground-hornbill observer may just need to locate where to strike prey rather than how. Furthermore, these results can be used in the context of conservation to teach ground-hornbills through social learning how to avoid or compete with threats to their survival. While these results exhibit the first recorded evidence of social learning in ground-hornbills, more research should be done to evaluate the influence of social dominance and individual features on this behavior.
Danel, S., Rebout, N. & Kemp, L. Social diffusion of new foraging techniques in the Southern ground-hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri). Learn Behav 51, 153–165 (2023). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-022-00518-4