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Birds can learn a second language

Humans learn second languages to enable them to communicate with people of different nationalities. Understanding just a few words can prove to be really useful. It turns out that birds can also learn languages but in the avian world, this ability is used to avoid predators!

Scientists have discovered that birds can learn to recognise the alarm calls of other species.

Australian fairy wren

The Australian fairy wren can master the meaning of a few key sounds by listening to other species. They use their new vocabulary to discover when a predator is approaching.
A study conducted by a British biologist and the Australia National University has found that tweets can go viral with birds picking up on their neighbour’s distress calls and using them to their own advantage. The team looked at the fairy wren, a small Australian songbird, and published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

Andrew Radford, co-author of the study, explained "We knew before that some animals can translate the meanings of other species’ ‘foreign languages,’ but we did not know how that ‘language learning’ came about".

Avian life skills

Radford and other scientists are working together to explore avian life skills and specifically birds’ ability to acquire information from their peers. Researchers walked around the Botanic Gardens in Canberra equipped with speakers attached to their waists. They sought out solitary fairy wrens as they needed to be sure that the birds would react only to sounds and not the behaviour of other birds.

The wrens were played two sounds. One was the alarm cry of an allopatric chestnut-rumped thornbill, a species not found in the region. The other was a computer-generated bird sound. The fairy wrens initially had no discernible reaction to the sounds.

Learning distress calls

But as the scientists continued to play the recordings, they trained half the birds to recognise the thornbill’s alarm cry as a warning sound and the other half to recognise the computer-generated sound as a distress call. They were able to do this by playing the sounds in conjunction with other noises that they knew the birds would associate with danger such as the fairy wren’s own distress call.

After three days it became evident that the Wrens had learnt the meaning of the recorded sounds. The bird would flee when they heard the sound they had been trained to recognise and did not react to the other sound. The results were spectacular as 12 of the 16 birds fled every time they heard the sound that they had been trained to react to.

New understanding

It was already known that wrens could learn distress calls when they heard them and then encountered a predator. The new study has demonstrated that they can learn to associate sounds with danger without the need for trial and error or a direct encounter with danger. It’s a key survival skill and other bird may possess the same ability.


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