A surprising new study has found that the Japanese great tit communicates a lot like humans do.
Human language is richly complex compared to animals because we can use the combination and order of words to create meaning in a sentence — but as it turns out, so can a tiny bird called the Japanese great tit.
A new study published in the journal Nature Communications has found that Japanese great tits are capable of using compositional syntax, or the ability to combine different “words” to communicate a compound meaning, which until now scientists thought was limited to the human species, according to a Uppsala University statement.
Generally, birds will use a combinations of chirps and warbles to communicate if they’ve found a food source, if there is a predator nearby, or if they are trying to mate. This new study has shown that birds, like humans, use rules of syntax when they talk, just like humans, a surprising degree of semantic complexity in their seemingly random sing-song chatter.
The researchers came to these conclusions by carefully witnessing the Japanese great tit’s speech, finding that it was using different sounds and in different combinations in different contexts. This seems to indicate that there are some subtle variations in the meanings of these song combinations, which researchers confirmed after breaking down the calls and dissecting them, separating them into calls A, B, C, and D, and then observing which combinations meant certain things.
For example, when the birds heard the ABC-D call, they scanned the horizon and then moved closer to that call. ABC seemed to mean scan the horizon for predators, and D seems to mean come toward the call.
“This study demonstrates that syntax is not unique to human language, but also evolved independently in birds. Understanding why syntax has evolved in tits can give insights into its evolution in humans,” says David Wheatcroft, of the Department of Ecology and Genetics at Uppsala University and the study’s co-author said in a statement.