Certain species of birds, like humans, follow syntax while communicating with each other

Birds, Like Humans, Follow Syntactic Rules While Communicating-1

Syntax in linguistics refers to a set of principles and rules that govern the process of sentence construction in a language, especially pertaining to word order. Researchers have long believed that syntactic rules are unique to human communication, allowing people to combine words in a way that makes them meaningful. According to a new research, however, certain species of birds also use complex syntax while communicating with each other.

Language and linguistic rules enable humans to develop innumerable words and meanings from a limited number of phonetic elements. Thanks to syntax, we can convey meaning by combining words into unlimited phrases and sentences. As the team points out, previous research has shown that birds as well as primates have the ability to ascribe specific meaning to otherwise-unintelligible vocal elements. Up until now, however, syntactic rules were believed to be beyond the grasp of non-humans.

Conducted jointly by evolutionary biologists from Sweden’s Uppsala University, Japan-based Graduate University of Advanced Studies and the University of Zurich, the current study marks the first time that birds have been found to use syntax, in order to convey meaning. The research, according to the team, focuses on the evolution of syntactic rules in Japanese great tits (Parus minor), a species of passerine bird endemic to the Far East.

Also called Oriental tits, these small birds have at their disposal a rather large vocabulary, complete with complex syntactic rules. What is more, to communicate with each other, they take the help of  different calls and their combinations. For the research, the team recorded and analysed the interactions between the birds. As the scientists point out, sounds like “ABC calls” are used by the great tits to alert each other of approaching predators, such as sparrowhawk.

D-sounding calls, on the other hand, translate to “come over here”, allowing the birds to beckon their partners and friends to the nest or even to a newly-discovered food source. Combination of the two calls, referred to as ABC-D calls, are used to summon other birds, when faced with a predator. To check if the creatures follow proper syntactic rules while communicating, the researchers recorded their calls, and played them again later.

According to the team, when the ABC-D sounds were played in their natural order, the birds exhibited signs of alarm, flocking together as a way of defending themselves. However, when the calls were played in the reverse order, as in D-ABC, the birds failed to respond in any way. Speaking about the discovery, recently published in the Nature Communications journal, Dr. Michael Griesser of the University of Zurich said:

The results lead to a better understanding of the underlying factors in the evolution of syntax. Because the tits combine different calls, they are able to create new meaning with their limited vocabulary. That allows them to trigger different behavioral reactions and coordinate complex social interactions.

Source: University of Zurich

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