From Beastmaster to The Secret Garden, the idea that humans could communicate with avian life has been a thought buried in human human consciousness for generations. Now, science may have a chance to say, "we've got you covered."
Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe of Kyoto University performed a series of experiments to determine whether Bengalese finches expect the notes of their tunes to follow a certain order. To test this possibility, Abe and Watanabe took advantage of a behavioral response called habituation, where animals zone-out when exposed to the same stimulus over and over again.
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.
Because the birds responded strongly to tunes ordered with certain structure, even when this structure was artificially constructed, the research team determined that the finches were able to spontaneously learn new grammar. This ability, though, seemed to be dependent upon their social context.
Birds isolated as babies from other birds were still able to learn artificial rules of grammar, but they failed to respond to songs with modified syntax—that is, normal Bengalese finch songs with the notes shuffled. However, after being reintroduced to other birds, it took them only two weeks to learn to respond to the shuffled songs, indicating that the birds needed to hear other birds’ songs to absorb the precise rules of Bengalese finch grammar.
While birdsong has long been known to share similarities with human language, the ability to convey different bits of information by simply rearranging word order was thought to be exclusively human.
This study revealed that Bengalese finches can learn grammar and, furthermore, that their grammatical abilities involve a specific part of the brain region distinct from other brain regions involved in singing. This is similar to what neuroscientists understand about human language processing.
Whether this will lead to Mike Tyson leading a pigeon army to global domination or just lots of insipid conversations about wingspan and aeronautics is anybody's guess, but it's surely a sign that we're living in the future.
[Source: Geeks Are Sexy]