A new study published in the PLOS Biology journal may have just found an interesting connection between babbler birds and why we blabber. Scientists have long believed that the ability to create language is exclusive to humans. That is, to put together sounds in a string and intelligently mix them up in order to convey meaning. But now, they’re not so sure anymore.
The study discovered that babbler birds also have a distinct ability to create something consistent from the random noises they produce. Hold on, you’re saying, don’t parrots do the same? Well that may be the obvious question, yet you’re thinking of an entirely different thing.
Parrots mimic the sounds that they hear, and are doing a great job, but it is uncertain whether they actually understand what they are saying. Do you really think the neighbor’s parrot voluntarily mocks him every day? Probably not.
So, what do these birds have that other birds don’t? Well, for starting, they have fifteen different sounds which they use for specific situations. What is amazing though is that from these fifteen, there are three pairs in which the difference between the sounds is very minute. The birds use the same sounds in very slightly changed forms, each pertaining to a totally different meaning.
Yes, there are other examples of this type in the animal kingdom. The best one is that given by the researchers in the actual study: Campbell’s monkeys seem to have two predator specific alarm calls that can be changed into a general distress call by the addition of a single suffix which remains the same in any situation. Yet these monkeys, compared to the babblers are only in the very early stages of developing something the researchers call a “generative phonetic system.”
The generative phonetic system is something still completely unique to humans yet these tiny, tiny birds seem to be catching up. Here’s the first, perfect example:
A and B are the markers for two sounds the babbler birds make. They use these in two different arrangements: “AB” and “BAB” – the first one is squeaked out when they’re in flight (the flight call), while the second is common when they are back in their nests (the feeding call).
The scientists then took the recordings and played them back to the birds, only to find that they respond appropriately no matter how they rearranged the two sounds.
The conclusion the researchers reached is, as usual, that further experiments are needed. Yet, this discovery can mean an entirely new way in which we study bird sounds, and could help shed new light on how humans conceive speech.
Image source: i.guim.co.uk