We’ve known for a long time that humans are capable of assigning meaning to sounds based on context. In other words, we often figure out the meaning of a sound (take “bear” and “bare,” for example) based on where the sound falls in a string of other sounds.
It’s a fabulous skill that requires rather sophisticated cognitive abilities. And now researchers have discovered that humans are not alone in this ability. In fact, the ability to interpret sounds based on context has been observed in swamp sparrows, a grey-breasted bird found in North American wetlands.
Researchers discovered that the swamp sparrows’ “vocabulary” is made up of subsets of roughly ten different notes. What’s fascinating, however, is that the birds appear to assign different meaning to the same note depending on where it falls in a snippet of song. Researchers know this because the exact same note elicited fierce territorial behavior when heard in one location in a string of notes, and no response at all when heard in another part of the “sentence.”
What does this mean for humans? The discovery may help researchers better understand the building blocks of language in humans. In the meantime, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the world of avian communication. Turns out our feathered friends may have more to say than we thought.