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Birds, Dinos, and Complex Songs
If birds are dinosaurs...
Birds that sing complex songs give clue to origins of human syntax
By Steve Connor, Science Editor, in Denver
17 February 2003
Parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds which are able to learn complex,
repetitive songs have provided scientists with a unique insight into the
origins of syntax, the rules that govern human speech.
A team of researchers led by Erich Jarvis of Duke University in North
Carolina has found the key regions of a bird's brain which enable it to
construct and remember the complicated sequences of sounds which make up
The learning of songs or calls in the animal kingdom is rare. Only three
distantly related types of bird and three types of mammal humans, bats
and cetaceans are capable of vocal learning, which is regarded as the
essential first step in the evolution of human language.
Even though hummingbirds have some of the smallest brains of vertebrates,
they are still capable of learning and remembering extraordinarily complex
"The main thing they do with their vocal specialisations is to defend
territories and attract mates and the more complex the syntax, the sexier
the song," Dr Jarvis said.
"These little songbirds which are some of the smallest birds around can
do more complex things with their vocalisations than say, a horse, which
has a much larger brain. So this tells us what really matters is the
presence or absence of a circuit in the brain, regardless of the size of
the animal," he said.