Bird calls syntax: Can birds speak in phrases?

March 10, 2016 | By Garrett Montgomery More

Bird calls have syntax, according to a new study. A group of researchers in Japan have discovered that birds such as the Japanese great tits can combine more than 40 calls together to produce messages that convey different meanings – exactly like human beings.

Bird calls syntax

Bird calls might have syntax like humans, according to an interesting study by experts from, Japan, Germany, and Sweden at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Kanagawa, Japan.

The bird calls syntax study was published on Tuesday in Nature Communications. According to the scientists, just the way humans use syntax, (the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language), some birds like the Japanese great tits can do the same.

The birds also known as Parus minor can combine calls together to produce messages that convey different meanings. This is the first study that showed another species other than humans using grammatical rules. Dr. Toshitaka Suzuki, who led the research, explained how some birds can also combine these calls in a particular way to form “phrases” or “ABC” call to warn others of potential dangers. Suzuki stated:

“The tits use these calls to warn others of a perched predator such as a falcon. Another call, labelled ‘D’, means ‘come here’ and is used when discovering a new food source or to encourage a partner into the nest.
The tits demonstrate their mastery of communications by using these calls either alone or in combination, to communicate complex information. When the calls are played together in the natural order (ABC-D), other birds will respond by approaching while scanning for danger. But when the researchers artificially reversed the order in audio playback experiments, playing D-ABC, the birds did not respond.”

David Wheatcroft, co-author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University, in Uppsala, Sweden said they are not sure what the rule is based on, but he believes that it might be out of necessity to survive. Wheatcroft concluded by revealing that he and other researchers hope to find evidence of these grammatical rules in other birds like the North American chickadee — and across the animal kingdom. The ornithologist said:

“We hope people start looking for it and find it everywhere,” he said. “Because then we can start answering the question of how and why syntax evolved. For now, we don’t have any close relatives that we know who use syntax. And it’s a big question. Why not just convey a new meaning by creating a new word? Why does order matter? We hope that in the future, this research will help give us insight into why syntax evolved in humans.”

What are your thoughts on this discovery?


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