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Birdsong Syntax - Birds Speaking in Sentences by Laura Jeeves

Birdsong Syntax - Birds Speaking in Sentences by
Article Posted: 03/17/2017
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Articles Written: 3926
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Birdsong Syntax - Birds Speaking in Sentences

Travel & Tourism
Organised bird tours take participants to a host of destinations around the world, affording them the exciting opportunity to observe a diverse range of species in their natural habitat. While professional bird tours utilise the expertise of a naturalist or ornithologist to share their knowledge and be on hand to answer any questions, it's a good idea for participants to carry out their own research as well. Keeping updated on the latest studies in avian behaviour can make bird tours an even more fulfilling experience. The following is one of these latest fascinating findings by scientists.

Researching Avian Communication

Throughout the natural world communication forms the basis of existence and survival. We've long known that birds can communicate vocally within their own species (and sometimes unintentionally to others) to warn of impending danger, attract a mate, or defend their territory, but recently scientists have discovered that some can actually speak in cohesive sentences.

Syntax vs. Referential

Until now it was thought that animals could only use what's known as referential communication – a range of specific sounds that have specific meanings. The ability to speak in sentences, by applying syntactical rules to create a series of complex meanings, is a skill thought to have been reserved solely for humans. However, researchers from Sweden, Japan and Germany, led by Toshitaka Suzuki, have released their findings to demonstrate that one particular species of bird, the Japanese Great Tit, has evolved the ability to apply compositional syntax to its vocal range.

What this means is that the bird is able to link together chirps and whistles in a particular order and duration to communicate specific information. This is different to phonological syntax, involving the use of prefixes or suffixes to change the meaning of a sound, which is used by some monkeys.

Researching By the Letter

Over a period of more than a decade, Suzuki and his team carried out a complex study of the Japanese Great Tit, by breaking the bird's calls into a designated code and reproducing it. So, one call was named A, another B, another C and then D. By applying various combinations of the call code and observing the birds' behaviour they were able to determine that each combination of linguistics had a separate meaning and response.

For example, ABC prompted a certain response (scanning for predators), D another (safe to approach), and ABCD a combination of both those actions (approach but also scan for predators). What was most definitive, though, was that if the calls were reproduced in a different order, for example DBAC, there was no response – confirming that the use of syntax was in play.

A Significant Discovery

The discovery is the first of its kind, but because the Japanese Great Tit has a number of closely related species in North America and Europe, researchers now believe it's highly feasible that it's possible, and even probable, that there are other birds and indeed other animals that use syntax.

The findings of this study open up an entirely separate sphere of research for scientists to determine whether the rules are random or specific, and could even lead linguists to an explanation as to how and why syntax evolved in humans.

Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in bird watching. As a passionate lover of birds, Marissa chooses the expert-led bird tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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