Can Birds Learn Grammar?

Posted on May 3, 2006

San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner discovered that songbirds might be capable of learning basic grammar after he ran a test where 9 out of 11 of the starlings recognized when parts from other bird songs were inserted into their bird songs. The AP says it took 15,000 training attempts for the birds to succeed.

Starlings learned to differentiate between a regular birdsong "sentence" and one containing a clause or another sentence of warbling, according to a study in Thursday's journal Nature. It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize the most basic of grammar in their own bird language.

Gentner trained the birds using three buttons hanging from the wall. When the bird pecked the button it would play different versions of bird songs that Gentner generated, some with inserted clauses and some without. If the song followed a certain pattern, birds were supposed to hit the button again with their beaks; if it followed a different pattern they were supposed to do nothing. If the birds recognized the correct pattern, they were rewarded with food.

Gentner said he was so unprepared for the starlings' successful learning that he hadn't bothered to record the songs the starlings sang in response.

"They might have been singing them back," Gentner said.

The article says similar past tests with monkeys have failed but possibly just because the monkeys were not trained for the test ahead of time. We have recently seen crows make tools so it is not a big surprise that they can recognize when a bird song is not correct. Birds may be much more intelligent than previously realized. If you are not convinced read about the Nkisi project and listen to the audio tape. The 4 year old African Gray Parrot has real conversations, has a contextual vocabulary of over 700 words and even engages in creative word play.

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