So birds do grammar, but how’s their algebra?

We already knew that birdsong changes over time as birds' environments change - hence this video of a bird imitating the ringing of a mobile phone. Now there’s evidence that birdsong has a grammar of sorts. New Scientist has reported on a study that suggests Bengal finches can distinguish between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ combinations of their birdsong, and that the ability to do this is learned, not innate.

The study’s findings are the first reported instance of an animal other than a human using grammar. This is a neurological ability quite distinct from the ability to match a word to an object, which of course we know we share with dogs, parrots and Justin Bieber. But it’s only one of several so-called human abilities that have been shown to exist in the non-human animal world.

Image of a Bengal finch via indiastudychannel.com

Image of a Bengal finch via indiastudychannel.com

Others include teaching, learning, cooperation, deception, memory and social learning. And if we look a little further, we also find evidence that various animals possess culture, the capacity to use tools, morality, emotions, personalities and the ability to read minds. This no doubt explains why we are so prone to anthropomorphising animal behaviour - something writing experts often admonish as a faux pas, despite its common occurrence in literature.

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