Australian babbler birds have the beginnings of a real language

Near Woomera in central Australia. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Researchers have discovered that Australian babbler birds are able to communicate by stringing together sounds in much the same way as humans create language.

The chestnut-crowned babbler, a highly social bird found between 21cm and 23cm in length and weighing about 60g, is found in south-eastern Australia.

The study findings, by researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Zurich, and published in the journal PLOS Biology, reveals a potential early step in the emergence of elaborate language.

“In contrast to most songbirds, chestnut-crowned babblers do not sing,” says Sabrina Engesser from the University of Zurich.

“Instead its extensive vocal repertoire is characterised by discrete calls made up of smaller acoustically distinct individual sounds.”

The researchers think that babbler birds may choose to rearrange sounds to code new meaning because doing so through combining two existing sounds is quicker than evolving a new one.

The chestnut-crowned babblers reuse two sounds “A” and “B” in different arrangements when doing specific things.

When flying, the birds produce a flight call “AB”, but when feeding chicks in the nest they use “BAB” prompt calls.

When the researchers played the sounds back, the birds showed they were capable of discriminating between the different call types by looking at the nests when they heard a feeding prompt call and by looking out for incoming birds when they heard a flight call.

This is the first time that the capacity to generate new meaning from rearranging meaningless elements has been shown to exist outside of humans.

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