Grammar is for the birds

By Susan Aiello • Published: January 1st, 2012
Category: Animal Airwaves

Happy birds chirp and sing and tweet, but does all this chatter mean anything? New Japanese research suggests that not only do these sounds have meaning, but the order of the tweets may form a rudimentary form of birdy grammar.

Observing finches, researchers noted that the song of one male elicited a burst of calls from other males. When the same song was jumbled up in various ways, some combinations elicited a burst of calls and some did not, suggesting perhaps that some song patterns didn’t make sense.

This is similar to a human sentence in which some word sequences can be understood grammatically, while others can’t. The scientists were even able to identify the language center in the avian brain, raising the possibility of using birds as models for speech processing in people. So it looks like even bird brains can talk.