Songbirds have the ability to learn the rules of an artificial grammar system, reports a new study published online this week in Nature Neuroscience. The ability to process this type of hierarchical language structure was previously thought to be specific only to humans.
Although songbirds have traditionally been used to model the neural circuitry underlying precursor functions to human language, this is among the first studies to suggest that songbirds have such sophisticated abilities.
Kentaro Abe and colleagues tested whether songbirds could use information about syntax in the syllables of natural birdsong to discriminate between songs. They also taught the birds artificial grammatical rules from songs which the authors created. In both cases, the birds appeared to be sensitive to the structure of the songs.