‘Babbler’ birds use primitive language: study

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Miami — A bird in Australia is able to string sounds together and mix them together to communicate different meanings to others, a skill previously attributed only to humans, researchers said Monday.
The study in the journal PLOS biology focuses on the chestnut-crowned babbler, found in the Australian Outback.
Researchers have long known that birds can put together different sounds and patterns for the songs they sing, but these aren’t meant to make sense, said lead author Sabrina Engesser of the University of Zurich.
“Changing the arrangement of sounds in a song doesn’t seem to change its overall message,” she said.
But the talkative bird does not sing.
“Instead, her vast vocal repertoire is characterized by low-key calls consisting of small, acoustically distinct individual sounds,” she said.
Researchers studied bird calls and found that different patterns were used in certain circumstances.
For example, two sounds that scientists named “A” and “B” were combined for a flight call (“AB”) and for a feeding call (“BAB”).
When the researchers replayed the sounds, the birds showed different reactions, such as looking at their nests when they heard a feeding call and watching for incoming birds when they heard a flight call, according to the study.
“This is the first time that the ability to generate new meaning from the rearrangement of meaningless material has been shown to exist outside of humans,” said co-author Dr Simon Townsend. from the University of Zurich.
“Although the two talkative bird calls are structurally very similar, they are produced in entirely different behavioral contexts and the listening birds are able to pick up on this.”
The researchers said their findings “reveal a potential first step in the emergence of the elaborate language systems we use today.”

AFP

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