Plants And Animals

Birds Use Basic Grammar In Ways Similar To That Of Human Infants

Study has found that two species of songbirds - budgerigars (budgies) and zebra finches - can grasp the very basics of grammar in ways similar to that of human infants.

Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands have found that two songbird species – budgerigars (commonly known as budgies) and zebra finches – are able to learn the rules that define abstract grammatical structures in ways similar to that of human infants. For the study, researchers tested how the birds interpreted new combinations of sounds they had heard previously and found that both species of songbirds were able to perceive the abstract relation between the noises. Their unique ability to graspΒ the very basics of grammar makes them one of the only non-human species to exhibit such a high level of abstract thought.

As per the paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Michelle Spierings and Carel ten Cate isolated individual birds in a chamber and taught them to recognize recorded clips of bird melodies. They created two form of melodies that occurred in a certain pattern – one that was in the order XXY and the other XYX, and trained them to peck a key that correspond to each song. The researchers then tested the birds on their ability to use what they had learned. First, the birds were exposed to the same melodies they previously learned, but in a new environment, and then were exposed to new sounds in the same pattern.

Both species of songbirds were able to distinguish between the new songs even when the sounds were in a different order and recognize the fundamental aspects of grammar. They found that budgerigars were able to transfer what they had learned to new sounds, meaning they were able to tell the difference between two songs which varied structurally. On the other hand, zebra finches focused on positions of specific items in a string. The ability to perceive the abstract relation was long thought to be unique for humans, but this study have proven that other species can too detect grammatical regularities without language.


  1. Now I will have to rethink the phrase as ‘dumb as a cluck’. Apparently birds are as smart or smarter at grammar nuances than many humans are.

  2. Intriguing article – I had a Zebra Finch with a wonderful song, but when his mate died I gave him to a friend with a tiny flock, but her males had different, more basic (boring) songs and I wondered much about that. BTW, your page is powered by WordPress, I believe, but I don’t see a WordPress “Like” button. Is that available?

    1. You did the right thing. Every creature deserves to have their partners. Anyway, glad you liked it, Lloyd. And yes, about the Like button, I disabled it. πŸ™‚

      1. That’s too bad. I don’t see a place/way to repost (which in my case would automatically link to my Twitter and FB accounts), and I don’t always want to share to just one social media sites (it would really only be FB if I did), but I do want people to have an immediate way to see someone else’ positive view of the post. Just a thought.

      2. You’re right. But, I would appreciate more if my readers would share on their social media sites. Social buttons affect load time, and enabling WordPress ‘Like’ would affect load time even more. This will affect user (with especially with low Internet speed) experience. Anyway, I know commenters like you are genuine readers. Thank you for being one. πŸ™‚

      3. Wow. I didn’t know/think about load time. My blog is tiny and its eclectic nature (and my style) doesn’t draw a large readership. I learned something! One thing I wish I knew was how to keep the basic appearance while making it mobile friendly. I am sure there is a tutorial about that somewhere.

  3. I did want to point out one important distinction. Budgies are parrots, not ‘songbirds’. While the message might be the same, I wonder what the results would have been using two actual songbird species, such as zebra finches and, say, Cerulean warblers. That would be more apples to apples rather than apples to oranges. Just a thought.

  4. Whenever I listen to birdsong, I’ve often felt like there was something like linguistics going on. Especially when birds seem to answer one another, and their songs change as the “conversation” goes on.

    1. Me too. There is so much more to ALL animals than we realize. More evidence that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to reduce our damaging impacts on the Earth and, also, to go vegan.

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