Twelve of Zebra Finch sitting together on a tree branch and sunning .

Do birds have language? It depends on how you define it

Scientists find some parallels with human speech in cheeps and trills of birdsong.

In our quest to find what makes humans unique, we often compare ourselves with our closest relatives: the great apes. But when it comes to understanding the quintessential human capacity for language, scientists are finding that the most tantalizing clues lie farther afield.

Human language is made possible by an impressive aptitude for vocal learning. Infants hear sounds and words, form memories of them, and later try to produce those sounds, improving as they grow up. Most animals cannot learn to imitate sounds at all. Though nonhuman primates can learn how to use innate vocalizations in new ways, they don’t show a similar ability to learn new calls. Interestingly, a small number of more distant mammal species, including dolphins and bats, do have this capacity. But among the scattering of nonhuman vocal learners across the branches of the bush of life, the most impressive are birds—hands (wings?) down. Read more…

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