Birds echoing human words is not a new concept. Several species of parrots have the capacity to learn words in several languages, even if they don’t understand their meaning. And if a wild bird hears a human sing of whistle, chances are they will copy the sound.
But a new study conducted by the University of Exeter and the University of Zurich has found that the chestnut-crowned babbler birds’ language skills go even further than that. The researchers learned that these creature are capable of rearranging the meaningless sounds they emit so as to form meaningful messages.
In their study, published in the journal PLOS Biology, the study authors stressed just how important this new discovery is to better understand how the human language evolved. They wrote that their results prove that the ability to tie together meaningless sounds so as to create new signals and ideas occurs outside of human language, it is not specific to our species.
The scientific community has been fascinated with the evolution of human language for a good, long time. Experts have looked at many other animals throughout the years in order to find answers and similarities. While many species exhibit some kind of intelligence when it comes to language or communication, but none seemed to be able to give meaning to meaningless sounds until now.
Sabrina Engesser, lead author and professor at the University of Zurich, gave a statement saying that even though previous studies have sjown that animals, and birds in particular, have the ability to tie together different sounds in order to crate complex songs, generally speaking, these songs don’t have a specific meaning and if one were to change the order of the sounds in the songs it would most likely not change the overall meaning.
This is precisely where chestnut-crowned babbler birds differ. The lead author went on to explain that “In contrast to most songbirds, chestnut-crowned babblers do not sing. Instead its extensive vocal repertoire is characterized by discrete calls made up of smaller acoustically distinct individual sounds”.
Andy Russell, co-author and professor at the University of Exeter, gave a statement of his own, informing that the researchers think chestnut-crowned babblers may be actively choosing to rearrange sounds in order to build new meanings because it is much easier to do so by combining existing sounds than it would be achieve it by evolving entirely new meanings. He’s been studying the species for more than 10 years.
During their study, the researchers noticed that the bird species was reusing sounds that they refer to as “A” and “B”. They were rearranging them with every new behavior that they were engaged in. For instance, the chestnut-crowned babblers created a call that sounded like “AB” while they were flying, and one that sounded like “BAB” while they were feeding their young, in the nest.
When the research team played back several of their sounds, the birds showed that they were able to distinguish between then and that they attributed them different meanings. They looked over at their nests when they heard the “BAB” call, and looked out for other birds when they heard the “AB” call.