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Biologists Identify First Animal That Communicates With the Complexity of Human Language: the Song Sparrow

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The tweets of a little song sparrow and its ‘bird brain’ are a lot more complex and akin to human language than anyone realized. A new study finds that male sparrows deliberately shuffle and mix their song repertoire possibly as a way to keep it interesting for their female audience.

The research, from the lab of Stephen Nowicki, Duke University professor of biology and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and colleagues at the University of Miami, shows that singing males keep track of the order of their songs and how often each one is sung for up to 30 minutes so they can curate both their current playlist and the next one.

Song sparrows are a common songbird throughout North America, but only males sing. They use their song to defend their turf and court mates.

When wooing, song sparrows belt up to 12 different two-second songs, a repertoire that can take nearly 30 minutes to get through, since they repeat the same song several times before going on to the next track. In addition to varying the number of repeats, males also shuffle the order of their tunes each time they sing their discography. However, a big unknown had been whether males change up their song order and repeats by accident or by design.

To get some data on whether or not the birds intentionally shuffle and mix their tunes, Nowicki’s long-time collaborator William Searcy, the Maytag Professor of Ornithology in Biology at the University of Miami, loaded up the recording gear, trekked out to the backwoods of northwest Pennsylvania, set up mics pointed to the trees and patiently waited for five hours a day.

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