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Birds can do it all. They fly, have hollow bones, eat worms all day, and live in houses made of sticks and spit. If you think birds can’t get any more amazing, think again. Researchers at the University of Kyoto have found that Bengalese finches follow a pitch pattern in their tweets that is essentially grammatical. Danielle Perszyk writes in Scientific American that the study found “the birds responded strongly to tunes ordered with certain structure, even when this structure was artificially constructed.” Birds may be the only species that can drop a dookie on you from one hundred feet in the air while correcting your use of a split infinitive.
How does one find out if birds know grammar? Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe, the researchers who led the study, did the following:
In each experiment, the birds were presented with the same songs until they became familiarized with the tune. The researchers then created novel songs by shuffling the notes around. But not every new song caught the birds’ attention; rather, the finches increased response calls only to songs with notes arranged in a particular order, suggesting that the birds used common rules when forming the syntax of that song. When the researchers created novel songs with even more complicated artificial grammar–for example, songs that mimicked a specific feature found in human (Japanese) language–the birds still only responded to songs that followed the rules.
Amazingly, baby finches that were isolated from other birds were able to pick up on artificially constructed songs. It took the finches only two weeks to learn standard birdsong grammar after being introduced to a group of fellow fowls. This means they “absorb the precise rules of Bengalese finch grammar” just by listening.
Should further research prove that the varying tweets convey actual meaning, like words, it’s a possibility that “these animals possess other cognitive abilities once thought to be singularly characteristic of human intelligence”
If that turns out to be true, watch out:
Are birds’ tweets grammatical? [Scientific American]