Bird talk, human talk

By Ann Griswold • Published: April 9th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Squawk! Polly want a cracker? Parrots may sound an awful lot like humans, but scholars have long insisted that human language is strictly separate from animal talk. Now researchers suggest human and animal communication may share a similar origin and propose we have a lot to learn from the squawks, caws and yowls of our fine-feathered friends.

Until recently, scientists assumed that the keys to human language were stored away in a so-called “black box” in the brain that is opened as a baby begins to coo and babble. That theory has been challenged in recent years as studies of birds, whales, porpoises and non-human primates yield clues about the emergence of vocal patterns. Now, scientists at the University of Chicago are focusing on communication in birds to learn more about the origins of human language.

If you stop to think about it, you’ve probably heard starlings and other songbirds utter complex, human-like vocal patterns that sound like buzzing, purring or “CHACKER-CHACKER-CHACKER” noises. The researchers say songbirds have a distinctly human ability to learn complex vocal patterns, and evolutionary biology may provide important clues about how language develops.

But the scientists don’t just rely on the birds’ songs for information. They take an even deeper look at the bird brain using an E-E-G. By fitting a tiny device on the birds’ heads, the scientists can study the large forebrain involved in learning vocal patterns.

The findings will also help measure animal intelligence. So the next time you hear a parrot’s voice, stop and listen: It might not be that different from your own.