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PostPosted: Wed Apr 26, 2006 2:29 pm 
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Songbirds May Be Able to Learn Grammar

By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer1 hour, 25 minutes ago

The simplest grammar, long thought to be one of the skills that separate man from beast, can be taught to a common songbird, new research suggests.

Starlings learned to differentiate between a regular birdsong "sentence" and one containing a clause or another sentence of warbling, according to a study in Thursday's journal Nature. It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize the most basic of grammar in their own bird language.

Yet what they learned may shake up the field of linguistics.

While many animals can roar, sing, grunt or otherwise make noise, linguists have contended for years that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our elementary school teachers and basic grammar. Sentences that contain an explanatory clause are something that humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.

Two years ago, a top research team tried to get tamarin monkeys to recognize such phrasing, but they failed. The results were seen as upholding famed linguist Noam Chomsky's theory that "recursive grammar" is uniquely human and key to the facility to acquire language.

But after training, nine out of Gentner's 11 songbirds picked out the bird song with inserted warbling or rattling bird phrases about 90 percent of the time. Two continued to flunk grammar.

"We were dumbfounded that they could do as well as they did," Gentner said. "It's clear that they can do it."

Gentner trained the birds using three buttons hanging from the wall. When the bird pecked the button it would play different versions of bird songs that Gentner generated, some with inserted clauses and some without. If the song followed a certain pattern, birds were supposed to hit the button again with their beaks; if it followed a different pattern they were supposed to do nothing. If the birds recognized the correct pattern, they were rewarded with food.

Gentner said he was so unprepared for the starlings' successful learning that he hadn't bothered to record the songs the starlings sang in response.

"They might have been singing them back," Gentner said.

To put the trained starlings' grammar skills in perspective, Gentner said they don't match up to either of his sons, ages 2 and 9 months.

What the experiment shows is that language and animal cognition is a lot more complicated than scientists once thought and that there is no "single magic bullet" that separates man from beast, said Jeffrey Elman, a professor of cognitive science at UCSD, who was not part of the Gentner research team.

Marc Hauser, director of Harvard University's Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, who conducted the tamarin monkey experiment, said Gentner's study was important and exciting, showing that "some of the cognitive sources that we deploy may be shared with other animals."

But Hauser said it still doesn't quite disprove a key paper he wrote in 2002 with Chomsky. The starlings are grasping a basic grammar, but not the necessary semantics to have the language ability that he and Chomsky wrote about.

Hauser said Gentner's study showed him he should have tried to train his monkeys instead of just letting them try to recognize recursive grammar instinctively. But starlings may be more apt vocalizers and have a better grasp of language than non-human primates. Monkeys may be trapped like Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, a man metamorphosized into a bug and unable to communicate with the outside world, Hauser suggested.


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PostPosted: Wed Apr 26, 2006 4:18 pm 
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granola wrote:
It took University of California at San Diego psychology researcher Tim Gentner a month and about 15,000 training attempts, with food as a reward, to get the birds to recognize the most basic of grammar in their own bird language.


A month and 15,000 attempts. Why those little prodegies...

So who's fault was it that it took so long? The researcher or the birds?

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 26, 2006 4:55 pm 
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Archer wrote:
A month and 15,000 attempts. Why those little prodegies...

So who's fault was it that it took so long? The researcher or the birds?


Humm, I did not think that was so long. I just thought it was interesting and worth the time to ponder the ramifications of the study.


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PostPosted: Thu Apr 27, 2006 10:21 am 
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granola wrote:
Archer wrote:
A month and 15,000 attempts. Why those little prodegies...

So who's fault was it that it took so long? The researcher or the birds?


Humm, I did not think that was so long. I just thought it was interesting and worth the time to ponder the ramifications of the study.


Yes, very interesting indeed.

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2006 9:10 am 
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When I first read this, I was surprised that it took such a short period of time. After all, this "communication" is taking place between two very different species.

Some believe that the participants on this board are all of the same species but we don't understand each other nearly this well. ;)

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2006 9:25 am 
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I was surprised Starlings are classified as "songbirds"

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2006 10:08 am 
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I was surprised Starlings are classified as "songbirds"


Around here, they are historically classified as one of the species it is permissable to kill at any time, for any reason including target practice. For young trophy hunters armed with BB guns, they are a cut above English Sparrows....but not on a level with pigeons.


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PostPosted: Mon May 01, 2006 10:16 am 
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RF wrote:
sammyd wrote:
I was surprised Starlings are classified as "songbirds"


Around here, they are historically classified as one of the species it is permissable to kill at any time, for any reason including target practice. For young trophy hunters armed with BB guns, they are a cut above English Sparrows....but not on a level with pigeons.


Yeah, they are one of the few birds that's legal to kill whenever, and I do so any chance I get.

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PostPosted: Mon May 01, 2006 10:23 am 
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Archer wrote:
RF wrote:
sammyd wrote:
I was surprised Starlings are classified as "songbirds"


Around here, they are historically classified as one of the species it is permissable to kill at any time, for any reason including target practice. For young trophy hunters armed with BB guns, they are a cut above English Sparrows....but not on a level with pigeons.


Yeah, they are one of the few birds that's legal to kill whenever, and I do so any chance I get.



Also one of the worse carriers of bird lice in the animal kingdom. Because of their ability to find cracks in human buildings they spread those lice through home investations.

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PostPosted: Mon May 01, 2006 11:56 am 
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They are a very invasive, non-native species that is hard on native birds. That's reason enough for me to shoot them.

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PostPosted: Tue May 02, 2006 10:44 am 
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Archer wrote:
They are a very invasive, non-native species that is hard on native birds. That's reason enough for me to shoot them.


The interesting thing is that they are native somewhere and have a useful ecological niche. Now here is CA they are a pain in the butt but someone somewhere has to think they are useful. Now the questions is where?


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PostPosted: Tue May 02, 2006 11:22 am 
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granola wrote:
Archer wrote:
They are a very invasive, non-native species that is hard on native birds. That's reason enough for me to shoot them.


The interesting thing is that they are native somewhere and have a useful ecological niche. Now here is CA they are a pain in the butt but someone somewhere has to think they are useful. Now the questions is where?


Europe. You may not have heard them called by their full name, but they are European starlings. They were introduced here many years ago when they shouldn't have.

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PostPosted: Tue May 02, 2006 11:30 am 
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granola wrote:
Archer wrote:
They are a very invasive, non-native species that is hard on native birds. That's reason enough for me to shoot them.


The interesting thing is that they are native somewhere and have a useful ecological niche. Now here is CA they are a pain in the butt but someone somewhere has to think they are useful. Now the questions is where?
They are native to Europe and were introduced to North America. Starlings are a huge problem here in Alberta, too. The European starling has had a very negative effect on the Mountain Bluebird populations. Farmers have tried to combat the problem by placing lots of nesting boxes along fencelines and it has helped, but it's still rare to see a Mountain Bluebird.

On a happy note, I finally saw a goldfinch yesterday. A female goldfinch was perched in our crabapple tree which is just budding. I was thrilled because while this is technically part of the goldfinch range, it's unusual to see them.


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PostPosted: Tue May 02, 2006 11:52 am 
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Archer wrote:
granola wrote:
Archer wrote:
They are a very invasive, non-native species that is hard on native birds. That's reason enough for me to shoot them.


The interesting thing is that they are native somewhere and have a useful ecological niche. Now here is CA they are a pain in the butt but someone somewhere has to think they are useful. Now the questions is where?


Europe. You may not have heard them called by their full name, but they are European starlings. They were introduced here many years ago when they shouldn't have.


I heard that someone in New York, a very long time ago. Had an obsession with the Birds mention in William Shakespeare plays and that is how the Starlings where introduced to North America. I did not know if they where native to the UK or all of Europe.


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PostPosted: Tue May 02, 2006 12:03 pm 
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I just looked them up in my birding guide. They were released in Central Park in 1890.


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