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Are birds’ tweets grammatical?


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Are humans the only species with enough smarts to craft a language? Most of us believe that we are. Although many animals have their own form of communication, none has the depth or versatility heard in human speech. We are able to express almost anything on our mind by uttering a few sounds in a particular order. Human language has a flexibility and complexity that seems to be universally shared across cultures and, in turn, contributes to the variation and richness we find among human cultures.

But are the rules of grammar unique to human language? Perhaps not, according to a recent study, which showed that songbirds may also communicate using a sophisticated grammar—a feature absent in even our closest relatives, the nonhuman primates.

Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe of Kyoto University performed a series of experiments to determine whether Bengalese finches expect the notes of their tunes to follow a certain order. To test this possibility, Abe and Watanabe took advantage of a behavioral response called habituation, where animals zone-out when exposed to the same stimulus over and over again.

In each experiment, the birds were presented with the same songs until they became familiarized with the tune. The researchers then created novel songs by shuffling the notes around. But not every new song caught the birds’ attention; rather, the finches increased response calls only to songs with notes arranged in a particular order, suggesting that the birds used common rules when forming the syntax of that song. When the researchers created novel songs with even more complicated artificial grammar—for example, songs that mimicked a specific feature found in human (Japanese) language—the birds still only responded to songs that followed the rules.

Because the birds responded strongly to tunes ordered with certain structure, even when this structure was artificially constructed, the research team determined that the finches were able to spontaneously learn new grammar. This ability, though, seemed to be dependent upon their social context.

Birds isolated as babies from other birds were still able to learn artificial rules of grammar, but they failed to respond to songs with modified syntax—that is, normal Bengalese finch songs with the notes shuffled. However, after being reintroduced to other birds, it took them only two weeks to learn to respond to the shuffled songs, indicating that the birds needed to hear other birds’ songs to absorb the precise rules of Bengalese finch grammar.

While birdsong has long been known to share similarities with human language, the ability to convey different bits of information by simply rearranging word order was thought to be exclusively human.

This study revealed that Bengalese finches can learn grammar and, furthermore, that their grammatical abilities involve a specific part of the brain region distinct from other brain regions involved in singing. This is similar to what neuroscientists understand about human language processing.

If the tweets of birds can be roughly likened to strings of human words, and if birdbrains process songs in a way similar to how human brains process language, future research may tackle whether these animals possess other cognitive abilities once thought to be singularly characteristic of human intelligence. The next time you hear a bird chirping outside your window, you might think twice about what’s going on inside his little birdbrain.

Images: photos by BS Thurner Hof and Kclama at Wikimedia Commons. Graphic of the brain, provided by the author.

Danielle Perszyk About the Author: Danielle Perszyk is a social neuroscience researcher at the Yale Child Study Center, where she studies autism using electrophysiological methods. At Williams College, studying cognitive science and neuroscience, she wrote a thesis on the neural mechanisms underlying syntax in birdsong. She is interested in the mind from an evolutionary perspective and is pursuing her PhD in cognitive psychology. In addition to writing about science, Danielle enjoys playing capoeira, blues dancing, poi, and fiddling.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. Jerzy New 2:59 pm 10/28/2011

    BTW – claiming that intelligent language needs a grammar imposes human limitations on language.

    It is possible to imagine language where information provided by human grammar is provided eg. by different frequency uttered simultaneously with the word. Human observer wouldn’t then be able to trace grammar by swapping around pieces of vocalization. Because songbirds have double syrinx and, unlike humans, can produce two sounds simultaneously, they could theoretically use such communication.

    There are also other possibilities of language without grammar as language scientists imagine it. For example, language where everything is described by different words depending from its position within a sentence. Or a language where each sentence contains a distinctive word describing in which relation are other words to each other.

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  2. 2. Jerzy New 3:20 pm 10/28/2011

    BTW2 – birds DO possess cognitive abilities exceeding human intelligence. Read fascinating book “Mind of the raven”.

    Ravens steal kills from wolves, which is effective task – raven confronting hungry wolf in most cases steals enough to be full, wolves lose significant percentage of each meal to wolves, ravens rely on stolen food in significant percent of their energy uptake. In the process, ravens carefully manipulate wolf behavior, distracting and provoking it, until the wolf repeatedly is away from the kill and ravens get their fill.

    For a human it would be difficult cognitive task. Dear human, you think you are cleverer than raven? Try fooling a hungry dog to steal meal from its dish without getting bitten. Easy? Apes are apparently unable to do it.

    But scientists ignore it – they still believe that theory of mind could evolve only in context of members of social group competing for status, and apes must come second-best to humans in everything.

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  3. 3. MadScientist72 4:45 pm 10/28/2011

    I’m afraid the only way in which humans are even potentially unique is our egotistical capacity for deluding ourselves into believing that we’re somehow “special”.

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  4. 4. bobinverness 6:39 pm 10/28/2011

    I hear a bird chirping outside my window now. Wonder what it is saying?

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  5. 5. nihao 11:02 pm 10/28/2011

    what I can understand from this article that it’s contradicting it’s own thesis!
    “…even when this structure was artificially constructed, the research team determined that the finches were able to spontaneously learn new grammar…”
    If birds are able to recognize or follow artificial grammar that means they do not follow any grammar at all! They just need to be used to with some sounds(can be very different from their original tweet).

    Link to this
  6. 6. JamesDavis 9:44 am 10/29/2011

    I know that Nightingales and Mockingbirds have their own language and they can even use other birds language to communicate with them. Both the Mocking Bird and the Nightingale even try to learn human language. A Nightingale stayed outside my kitchen window for three weeks trying to pick on on the song I was singing for it, over and over, through the window that I heard on the radio. When it realized that I was too dumb to catch on to what it was trying to say to me, it left. About a year later, a Mocking Bird tried the same thing. I could actually understand the Mocking Bird better than I could the Nightingale. We humans seem to be the only animal that can’t communicate with anything, not even ourselves.

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  7. 7. BK505 12:27 pm 10/30/2011

    Has anyone thought to investigate whether birds not only possess other cognitive abilities once thought to be singularly characteristic of human intelligence, but utilize cognitive abilities humans possess but do not use to the level they are capable of?

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  8. 8. MadScientist72 8:18 am 10/31/2011

    @ BK505 – Actually, there has been quite a bit of research into avian intelligence lately, mostly in corvid (crow, ravens, magpies, etc. In some tests, the birds even outperformed chimps. Do a google search for “crow intelligence” & approx. 1.8 million results come up.

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  9. 9. collettedesmaris 6:12 am 11/4/2011

    Yes, MadScientist72; you are correct – I learned about the research going on with the Corvid family of Avians quite recently myself. The paper I reviewed stated that the Corvid bird family is just under Dolphins on the intelligence scale. They have extraordinary reasoning abilities for problem solving, and they are extremely adept at recognition and memory.

    Geese clearly have communication going on between them – they fly as a group, and the goose in the front will be honking, and the goose in the tail end position will also be honking the whole time they’re flying. I lived on a 27-acre ranch, and one of the horse boarders also had three geese living there in a huge fenced-in area down in the lower forty. NO ONE could get past those geese without them issuing persistent, loud honks as an indication there was an intruder on the premises. They guarded the place better than the dogs did. Seemed like communication to me.

    It escapes me that the author of this article has such little knowledge about this subject; particularly since it states in her profile paragraph above, that she “wrote a thesis on the neural mechanisms underlying syntax in birdsong.” One would think that she would have unearthed the type of information that all nine of us readers presented in our comments; by default, when conducting her research to compose the thesis. Particularly since she claims the title of “Social Neuroscience Researcher.”

    Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. It is the duty of the conscientious journalist from all media and specialties to strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional Journalists who take their job seriously are dedicated to following a code of ethics at all times – in everything they publish. I cannot see any adherence to these standards within this article; and I’m left wondering why ….. because there is always a reason why people do what they do.

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  10. 10. hawaiigavin 4:58 pm 11/7/2011

    This is similar to some of the work that Terrance Deacon has been looking into. Really interesting stuff. I think the work coming out of this area is gradually showing language to be not so much a property of the human brain, but the way it has to be considering how sign systems (semiotics) works. This will have loads to say in the future on child language acquisition and second language acquisition.

    Gavin
    leakygrammar.com

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