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Australian Songbirds Caught Using Words, Just Like Humans Do and It’s Blowing Scientists’ Minds

Chestnut Crowned Babbler Bird on a branch

Songbirds Caught Using Words! Is this for real?

Apparently, it is.

At least for the chestnut-crowned babblers, it is.

A study called “Chestnut-crowned babbler calls are composed of meaningless shared building blocks.” by Engesser, Sabrina, et al. was done at the University of Exeter in the UK, and the results are interesting.

Songbirds called chestnut-crowned babblers combine meaningless sounds to create different calls with specific meanings. This is kind of like how humans use letters and syllables to build words.

How did scientists find out?

The researchers discovered that two of the Australian birds’ main calls – the “flight call,” which coordinates group movement, and the “prompt call,” which stimulates the feeding of young – are composed of some of the same basic sound units. When played individually, these sounds provoked no specific response, but the birds reacted appropriately when elements were sequenced into a full flight or prompt call. This means when they combined all the individual sounds, they made a word that other birds understood. This suggests babblers have a simplified version of the complex sound system that humans use for speaking. This simplified version allows babblers to use a combination of sounds to communicate and form words and sentences, similar to how humans do.

The Study (in simple terms)

The study tested two of the Australian birds’ calls:

  1. The “flight call” – coordinates group movement when a bird flies off, signaling others to follow
  2. The “prompt call” – stimulates feeding of baby birds by causing them to beg for food from their parents

Researchers played back recordings of the individual sound elements that make up these calls to wild babblers temporarily living in aviaries. The birds did not react at all to these sounds on their own. But when the elements were combined into a full flight or prompt call, the birds responded with meaningful behaviors tied to those calls.

“It’s as if the babblers have a set of sound building blocks they assemble to generate distinct signals, just like we construct words from syllables or letters,” explained lead researcher Dr. Sabrina Engesser from the University of Exeter.

This suggests that key foundations of human language, like recombining meaningless sounds to make meaning, may have had simpler precursors in animals. Studying how other species combine sounds will provide more clues into the evolution of complex communication abilities like human speech.

“By focusing on meaning-building blocks even in signals very foreign to us, we gain insight into common foundations across species,” said Dr. Engesser. “Understanding similarities between animal communication systems and human language helps reveal the astonishing yet relatable nature of our fellow creatures.”

The researchers plan to study combinatorial sound systems in other animal species. As we continue decoding how human language evolved, we keep finding just how creative and sophisticated our fellow creatures can be.

Songbirds caught using words Chestnut Crowned Babbler Bird on a tree


Engesser, Sabrina, et al. “Chestnut-crowned babbler calls are composed of meaningless shared building blocks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116.39 (2019): 19579-19584. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1819513116

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