Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

How Birds Learn Foreign Languages

Biologists from The Australian National University have taught wild birds to understand a new language.

After only 2 days of training, fairy wrens learned to flee when they heard an alarm call that was foreign to them, showing that birds can learn to eavesdrop on the calls of other species. The research could be used to help train captive animals to recognise signals of danger before they are released into the wild.

The researchers trained the fairy wrens by playing unfamiliar sounds to them while throwing a model glider of a predatory currawong or a sparrowhawk over them. After only eight playbacks the birds had learned to flee, while they did not flee when played unfamiliar sounds that had not been paired with the gliders.

“The first bird we tested lived on the ANU campus near my office. There was general disbelief and excitement when the bird learned the task perfectly,” said Prof Robert Magrath.

“We had been doing experiments on learning using different methods, but until then with little success. So it was exciting to finally crack the practical problems of carrying out this experiment, and get clear results.”

Many animals get information about danger by eavesdropping on each other, but how they do it has been an ongoing puzzle. “Recognising other species’ calls is a remarkable ability because there are lots of species in a natural community, and lots of different types of calls. It’s like understanding multiple foreign languages,” Magrath said.

The research has been published in Current Biology.