Starlings and nested songs

April 30, 2006

Noam Chomsky pegged “recursive grammar” as the unique feature of human speech. We can recognize speech patterns that are defined by nested structures (“The cat that the sitter that the service that I called hired fed died,” or “What did you bring a book I didn’t even want to be read out of to up for?”), in which the final piece of the pattern may be arbitrarily far from the initial piece.

Now it seems we aren’t alone. Starlings can be trained to recognize and produce recursive song patterns. They get it, when they are rewarded for an arbitrarily long string of rattle calls followed by an equal number of warble calls. It’s a skill that’s been tested and found lacking in tamarin monkeys, but starlings are up to it.


One comment

  1. Very interesting! You mean starlings have more cognitive ability than a certain chickenhawk?

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