The miracles of bird song and talking parrots
You may have heard of Shazam, a smartphone app that is able to identify music.
If you hear a song or artist that you can't identify, you simply record a snippet of the sound on your iPhone or Android smart phone.
The app then searches its database for a match, and tells you the name of the song and artist. There are many uses for this simple idea: you can identify movies, advertisements and anything else that uses music in the background. There are over 11 million songs in the Shazam database, and the app has been used to identify over 15 billion songs.
Why is a vet writing about this? Well, a new app is about to be launched that applies similar sound analysis technology to identify bird calls. "Warblr" has been designed by scientists from Queen Mary University in London, and it will be available to buy on your smartphone for €3.99.
If you hear a birdsong that you don't recognise, you use your smartphone to make a recording of the sound. Warblr analyses your recording, then provides a list of the most likely species responsible for the birdsong, along with information about each bird. One of the clever aspects of the app is that it uses smartphone geo-location technology to build a map of sightings of various bird species.
This will help ecologists and zoologists to monitor species' habitats, developing a database of increases, declines and migration patterns. The app is focussing on the UK as its primary market at first, and there are currently 220 British birds on its database, but it should soon work equally well for Irish bird watchers.
Bird song is one of nature's true wonders. Birds have an astonishing ability to create remarkable music: the sound of the dawn chorus is a daily miracle, if you are able to wake up early enough to hear it. For pet owners, the vocalisations of tame birds is one of their big attractions. Male canaries have been kept for centuries because of the sound of their song. And although they don't sing beautifully, the ability of certain birds to vocalise by mimicking human speech makes them especially appealing as pets.
Only a few bird species are able to reproduce the human voice accurately: those from the parrot family, mynah birds, starlings and crows are all able to do this. The method of producing words varies from species to species: it's a combination of the larynx and tongue, as in humans, plus sometimes the syrinx, the tubular structure deeper in the chest that's responsible for bird song. Birds also have a muscular windpipe (trachea) which they can open and close with muscles which allows the tone of the sound to be varied. Finally, the lower beak of parrots has a hinge which allows their mouth to be opened wider than most birds, allowing a wider range of sounds to be produced.
Obviously, parrots do not communicate with each other in human speech: they use a combination of whistles and growls. However they are social birds, and when they are living with humans, they start to see us as their flock family, and they naturally want to communicate with us. Since we don't use whistles and growls, they learn to mimic us. They seem to appreciate that if they make the same sounds as us, we engage with them, so they keep doing it.
I am often asked if parrots understand what they are saying. The answer to this is "sometimes". Birds, like other animals and humans, learn by association. So if I pick up a bunch of keys in the morning, my dogs all leap up excitedly, because they have learned to associate this action with being taken for a walk. Similarly, if you always say "bye-bye" before you go out, a parrot will learn that this is the sound that you make before you leave. So if you get your keys, and put your coat on, it's very likely that the bird will say "bye bye".
This same principle applies to many words. If you say "dinner time" every time you feed your parrot, he may start to say "dinner time" as you prepare his food. Of if you say "water" every time you fill his water bottle, he may even say "water" if the bottle is empty and he wants you to refill it. Parrots are also sensitive to human body language, and subtle inflections of tone, so they often seem to speak intelligently. If you are sad, a parrot might say "ahhhhh", or if someone tells a joke, raucous laughter is very likely. It's no wonder that parrots can be such popular pets. People have tried to teach parrots to talk using recorded sound, like tapes or CDs, but it doesn't work well. Parrots only want to learn to talk because they like communicating with people, not with machines.
The most famous talking bird in recent times was Alex, an African Grey Parrot who was the subject of a thirty year experiment by Irene Pepperberg, a USA-based animal psychologist. She believed that Alex was as intelligent as a primate or a dolphin, with the intelligence of a five year old human, and the emotional consciousness of a two year old child. Alex learned a vocabulary of over 100 words, and he seemed to understand what many of the words meant. He died in 2007 at the age of 31, from a suspected heart attack he was normal at bedtime, but found dead in his cage the next morning. His last words to Dr Pepperberg were: "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you." Did he mean what he said? Of course he did.