'Babbler' birds use primitive language - study

2015-06-30 09:30

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Miami - A bird in Australia is able to string together sounds and mix them up in order to communicate different meanings to others, a skill previously attributed only to humans, researchers said on 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 are not believed to hold meaning, said lead author Sabrina Engesser from the University of Zurich.

"Changing the arrangement of sounds within a song does not seem to alter its overall message," she said.

But the babbler bird does not sing.

"Instead its extensive vocal repertoire is characterised by discrete calls made up of smaller acoustically distinct individual sounds," she said.

New meaning

Researchers studied the bird calls and found that different patterns were used in certain circumstances.

For instance, two sounds that scientists named "A" and "B" were combined for a flight call ("AB") and for a feeding call ("BAB").

When the researchers played the sounds back, birds showed different reactions - such as looking at their nests when they heard a feeding prompt call and by looking out for incoming birds when they heard a flight call, the study said.

"This is the first time that the capacity to generate new meaning from rearranging meaningless elements has been shown to exist outside of humans," said co-author Dr Simon Townsend from the University of Zurich.

"Although the two babbler bird calls are structurally very similar, they are produced in totally different behavioural contexts and listening birds are capable of picking up on this."

Researchers said their findings "reveal a potential early step in the emergence of the elaborate language systems we use today".

Read more on:    australia  |  research  |  birds

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