Do birds really talk? A look at speech, mimicry – Moscow-Pullman Daily News

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Charlie Powell

Charlie Powell
Speech and vocal mimicry are coincidentally two different things that sometimes sound the same.
A recent study has more closely examined vocal mimicry in pet birds. But let’s begin thinking about this for a moment from some different angles.
Certainly, people have mimicked animal communication with bird calls, coyote and wolf howls, and even the sounds fish make when feeding in order to lure them closer. Recently, a travel documentary about the Canary Islands featured teachers there preserving an ancient form of whistle speech.
Silbo Gomero, or el silbo, is a form of Spanish used by inhabitants of La Gomera. Long before copper wires or wireless communication, it was difficult and inefficient to communicate across the deep volcanic ravines and narrow valleys that make up the island. Studies have shown specific messages often carried more than 3 miles.
Today, whistle speech is unnecessary, but a new generation of school children are enthusiastically learning the tool. Some are even forming clubs and setting up competitions.
So whistle speech is essentially a series of specific noises that are made and understood in the Spanish language. In that sense, it is probably actual speech within language.
British colonizers of islands in the Caribbean often set up towers on mountains to communicate via cannon fire. The island of Barbados is dotted with these towers, (I have a thing for cannons). When one lookout would spot a potential hostile or trading force approaching by sea, they had prearranged cannon fire that would be repeated until the whole island knew in a matter of minutes.
For centuries, people have been capturing various species of birds to teach them vocal mimicry. It has often been said that it was necessary to “split the bird’s tongue,” to get it to speak. Doing this is both cruel and unnecessary.
Humans make speech sounds using our lips, teeth, tongue and more. Birds don’t have those structures. Like us, they use their syrinx, the avian equivalent of our voice box or larynx. They make all the sounds we marvel at by varying the amount and volume of air across their syrinx. And that behavior can be trained without meatball surgery.
Studying vocal mimicry in birds that we often make pets, such as parrots, is an efficient way to conduct such research versus field studies. Still, it doesn’t mean that wild birds don’t use vocal mimicry in the form of bird sounds to deceive or manipulate other birds. Think mockingbirds.
The researchers from the University of Northern Colorado and University of Pittsburgh surveyed the parrot-owning public to determine whether vocal learning varied by species, sex, age and social interaction with other parrots. The article was published in 2022 in Scientific Reports (Vol. 12; Article 20271).
What they learned was that vocalization co-evolved among parrots with other specialized behavioral abilities, such as rhythmic entrainment and emotional contagion. For the latter,
consider how when a person yawns, others often yawn also. The former is a little more complicated but for the sake of discussion here, think rhythm.
They also found evidence of vocal learning variation within and between multiple species of parrots. The behavior is generally similar, though across genders. In the case of parrots, you can teach an old dog new tricks, as they can learn new vocalizations throughout life.
Like most desired animal behaviors, it takes time, repetition, training consistently and high value rewards to obtain the desired results. After that, the two bunkhouse cowboys I once knew who captured magpies to split their tongues and make them a barroom attraction can just stop.
Powell is the retired public information officer for Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. This column reflects his thoughts and no longer represents WSU. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email
Charlie Powell
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