Japanese bird researcher is world’s first to prove animals use words and grammar

OSAKA — A Japanese researcher studying a bird common to the country’s forests and urban parks has proven for the first time that animals communicate using words and grammar.

Toshitaka Suzuki, a 38-year-old assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Hakubi Center for Advanced Research, first became interested in Japanese breasts – each about 15 centimeters long – when he was a second-year student. at Toho College of Science. University. In a forest in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, a chickadee suddenly emitted a distinctive “hee-hee” call, and its entire flock flew away. This was immediately followed by the appearance of a hawk, the natural enemy of chickadees, in the sky above.

Convinced that the chickadees used different calls, Suzuki began experimenting. Since then, he has used the forest as his “laboratory”, spending six to eight months a year there for 16 years.

The first thing Suzuki worked on was to prove that birds had “words” as we would understand the term. He experimented with the idea that the “jar-jar” call tits emitted when a snake appeared literally meant “snake”. A stuffed snake was placed on top of a birdhouse for observation, and it confirmed that the tits made “jar-jar” sounds. The bird did not make the same sound with other taxidermy predators, such as hawks.

Then he played a recorded call “jar-jar” through a speaker, and the bird looked under the nest box and on the ground as if looking for snakes. However, that alone did not prove that “jar-jar” was a word; the bird “may have just had a reflexive tendency to look down,” Suzuki said.

This photo shows Toshitaka Suzuki, an assistant professor at Kyoto University’s Hakubi Center. (Photo courtesy of Toshitaka Suzuki)

Then he proposed another experiment. A stick with a string attached hung along the trunk of a tree, and a “jar-jar” sound was played through a speaker as the stick was pulled upward like a snake climbing the trunk. In most cases, the chickadees approached the stick when the “jar-jar” sound was played and seemed to check it out. With other calls, this behavior was almost never observed. Therefore, he reasoned that when they heard “jar-jar”, the tits assumed a snake was nearby and mistook the stick for the reptile.

The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2018 (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1718884115). It was the first time that an animal was shown to use words.

Suzuki also researched “grammar”. He focused on the “‘pee-tsupi’ (be alert) ‘ji-ji-ji-ji’ (gather together)” sounds made by chickadees when chasing natural enemies. When they hear this, the tits congregate near their natural enemies and threaten them, while keeping an eye on their surroundings. However, the birds did not seem alert or congregate when the word order was changed to “ji-ji-ji-ji pee-tsupi”. In other words, he thought it was possible that they recognized meaning by word order, or grammar.

There have been many reports of animals “possibly having language”, but this has not been scientifically proven. Suzuki said: “Research on animal language has not progressed well due to the assumption that humans are absolutely different from other animals. I hope my method will be used as a reference for further research on other animals.”

His future goal is to create a field he calls “animal linguistics” to deepen people’s understanding of animal communication.

(Japanese original by Kouki Matsumoto, Osaka Science and Environmental News Department)

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