Key element of human language discovered in bird babble

Stringing together meaningless sounds to create meaningful signals was previously thought to be the preserve of humans alone, but a new study has revealed that babbler birds are also able to communicate in this way.

Researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Zurich discovered that the chestnut-crowned babbler - a highly social bird found in the Australian Outback - has the ability to convey new meaning by rearranging the meaningless sounds in its calls. This babbler bird communication is reminiscent of the way humans form meaningful words. The research findings, which are published in the journal PLOS Biology, reveal a potential early step in the emergence of the elaborate language systems we use today.

Lead author Sabrina Engesser from the University of Zurich said: “Although previous studies indicate that animals, particularly birds, are capable of stringing different sounds together as part of a complex song, these songs generally lack a specific meaning and changing the arrangement of sounds within a song does not seem to alter its overall message.”

Chestnut-crowned babbler. Credit: Jodie Crane       


Scissor-tailed Kite (Chelictinia riocouriii)

Also known as the African Swallow-tailed Kite (not to be confused with  Elanoides forficatus of the Americas), the scissor-tailed kite is a species of elanid kite ( Accipitridae, Elaninae) which is widespread in Africa, where is occurs throughout most of northern Africa as well as most of “the horn”. Like other elanid kites, scissor-tailed kites feed mostly on insects and spiders, but are known to take small lizards and rodents as well. Scissor-tailed kites are a gregarious species, and are often seen in communal roosts. 


Animalia-Chordata-Aves-Accipitriformes-Accipitridae-Elaninae-Chelictinia-C. riocourii

Image: Ron Knight