Birds have their own unique language, study finds

If you’re an avian veterinarian, it may only be a matter of time before you’ll be learning bird-speak to communicate with your patients. At least, that’s what a new study suggests.

A team of researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, the University of Sheffield and University of Exeter in the UK, and the University of New South Wales in Australia concluded that some birds are offering more than just a pretty song when they sing. They’re also communicating messages.

The study was published in PLOS/Biology on June 29.

Humans are capable of rearranging sounds, or phenomes, to form different words so they can convey complex ideas. (The researchers use the example of the sounds in the word cat. When the sounds are rearranged, they can result in at, tack, or act.)

The chestnut-crowed babbler (Pomatostomus ruficeps) can do the same.

Using acoustic analysis, natural observation, and playback experiments, the researchers differentiated two different types of calls, based on how the birds re-sequenced the sounds that made up the calls.

One call was the dinner call or “feeding prompt” call. The other was a “flight” call that, not unlike an air traffic controller, signaled incoming flights of other birds.

The authors concluded that the basic ability for phenome structure is not only a human trait. Infact, human language may have earlier evolutionary roots.

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