A lot of birds are quite smart: take crows for example, who can recognize human faces and hold generations-long grudges against them. Or Alex the African grey parrot, who not only learned and used over 100 words in his 30-year lifetime but demonstrated an understanding of basic math.
But it’s not just the outliers or superstars who are drawing scientific attention recently. Researchers in Australia have performed an experiment on a whole population of fairy-wrens, in order to find out if they can learn concepts in a different bird “language” from their own.
They did this through a sort of immersion, similar to the supposedly best way for humans to learn languages too. The researchers walked through fairy-wren territory with small speakers on their wrists, which played the alarm sound of the non-Australia-native Chestnut-rumped thornbill. Others played a computer-generated buzzing sound. Once the individual birds were familiar with the new sounds, the researchers played them in tandem with sounds the fairy-wrens already knew to represent danger — including the fairy wren’s own alarm call.
“After three days, the scientists tested what the birds had learned — and their feathered pupils passed the test.
The two sets of fairy-wrens responded to the sound they had been trained on by fleeing for cover but remained indifferent to the other sound.
Twelve of the 16 birds fled at every playback; the other four birds fled in response to two-thirds or more of the playbacks.
To put it in human terms, it’s as though a person who only speaks English had learned that ‘Achtung’ means ‘attention’ or ‘danger’ in German simply by listening to people yell phrases with similar meanings in multiple languages at once.”
Fairy-wrens had previously been able to learn new sounds for “distress” in tandem with the presence of a predator. This experiment carefully removed the predator aspect, as well as isolated the birds from others whose behaviour they could observe. This means that the fairy-wrens learned “language” as language. Not bad for tiny dinosaurs!