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Birds’ Abilities in Language Closer to Humans Than Any Other Animal – Even Primates

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Published: April 28, 2022
The Japanese tit is said to be capable of using language to communicate with its flock. A Japanese researcher found birds' abilities include the use of vocabulary and grammar. (Image: Hertallen Mumriken via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

A Japanese researcher may have made a breakthrough that could bridge the gap of understanding between humans and fauna, especially our feathered friends. Birds’ abilities in linguistics have been demonstrated in their use of a varied vocabulary, and perhaps, even grammar!

Based on nearly 16 years of research, Kyoto University’s Assistant Professor Toshitaka Suzuki hypothesizes that a species of bird uses its own “language.”

Forest experiments show birds’ abilities for communication

As a student at the Faculty of Science at Toho University, Suzuki was in a forest in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, when he heard a bird—a Japanese tit—make a distinct call that precipitated an even more distinct reaction.

Suzuki observed that one tit’s call of “hee hee” caused the entire flock to take flight, after which a predatory hawk appeared in the sky. This sparked an idea that the birds used specific “words” to communicate, and he began a long series of experiments to find out whether the tits used different “words,” using the forest as his “laboratory.”

First, Suzuki wanted to determine whether the “jar-jar” call that he observed tits would make when a snake appeared literally meant “snake.” He placed a realistic stuffed snake on a nesting box, and found that the birds made the “jar-jar” sounds, which was not elicited from exposure to other taxidermy animals.

He also played a recording of the “jar-jar” call, and noted that the tits looked around the nest box; suggesting, but not yet proving, that the word meant “snake” and caused the bird to inspect the nest for an invader.  

For definitive proof, Suzuki used a stick on a string and pulled it up along the trunk of a tree as if it were a snake. When he played the “jar-jar” recording, the tits showed a tendency to examine the stick; while other calls elicited no such reaction. Suzuki thus concluded that the “jar-jar” call was a word that meant “snake.”

This marked the first time an animal has been known to use words.

Having determined that “‘pee-tsupi’ meant “be alert,” and “ji-ji-ji-ji” meant “gather around,” Suzuki went a step further, entering the subject of “grammar.” He observed that these words were used in combination to organize an effort to chase off predators; but the birds only showed the defensive response if the words were used in the proper order: “pee-tsupi ji-ji-ji-ji.” When Suzuki used the recorded sounds in reverse order, “ ji-ji-ji-ji pee-tsup,” the birds did not respond.

Suzuki also found that another species of tit—the willow tit—also makes a recruitment call which seems to be understood by its Japanese counterpart. 

Suzuki had heard of previous reports on animals “possibly having language,” but none of them were “proven scientifically.” 

“Research on animal language has not progressed well because of the assumption that humans are absolutely different from other animals,” Suzuki said. “I hope that my method will be used as a reference for further research on other animals.”

Along with Suzuki’s research, others are also finding out if birds are capable of using linguistic skills, though the research seems to only scratch the surface. (Image: yrjo jyske via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Further studies in bird linguistics

It is likely that other birds have language skills, according to ethologist Julia Hyland Bruno of Columbia University, who studies the song learning of zebra finches.

“Lots of people have made analogies between language and birdsong,” she said. Many birds are known to have the ability to learn new vocalizations, unlike most other animals—including primates.

In the 2021 Annual Review of Linguistics, Hyland Bruno wrote about zebra finches, saying that they are “more social” than other traveling birds, as they tend to migrate in small groups that sometimes grow larger. “I’m interested in how it is that they learn their culturally transmitted vocalizations in these groups.” 

It is believed that birdsong and language are “passed culturally” to subsequent generations through vocal learning.

“I wouldn’t say they have language in the way linguistic experts define it,” neuroscientist Erich Jarvis  of the Rockefeller University in New York City said. “I would say they have a remnant or a rudimentary form of what we might call spoken language. 

“It’s like the word ‘love.’ You ask lots of people ‘what does it mean’, and you’re going to get a lot of different meanings. Which means that it’s partly a mystery.”

In Sweden, Michael Griesser of Uppsala University conducted a study that proved that Siberian jays differ their antipredatory calls depending on whether a predator is spotted, searching or attacking. 

Another study by Christopher Templeton of the University of Washington showed that black-capped chickadees could make different numbers of “dees” in their calls to measure the size and threat of a predator.

birds'-abilities-wikimedia-commons
Studies of the zebra finch and its response to various alterations of their calls have shown that birds perceive sounds differently from us. (Image: Jim Bendon via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

However, while it is interesting to observe how birds respond to artificial sounds, neuroscientist Adam Fishbein of the University of California believes that birds are likely to perceive sounds differently from how we do.

Fishbein believes that birdsong is “very complex” and could have its own “sequences and patterns of notes, syllables and motifs;” elements that we might not readily recognize. Instead, we perceive the order of sounds, while the order may not be the important factor to the birds.

In a study Fishbein conducted on zebra finches, the birds were tested to see how accurately they marked changes to sounds. Artificially altering their song in a way that was obvious to humans got little response from the birds. 

When the song was altered in a higher frequency that we could barely hear, the birds perceived the change at a much higher rate. It was found that, while finches can hear the same song, there are more minute variations in the “temporal fine structure” – which describes the high-frequency details in a song syllable. This means that the finches could have a much more complex communication system than scientists initially thought.

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“It’s a dimension of sound that they’re much better at hearing than we are,” Fishbein said. “So they may be tapped into this level of the sound that we’re not tapping into when we just casually listen to birdsong.”

As Jarvis said, from his own experience, “I think we humans tend to overestimate how different we are…And then a year later, we’re making a discovery about the connectivity of the circuit, or the mechanism of how it’s producing the sounds, and it’s so much like humans.”