Startling Starlings

Cool article in the NY Times about starlings and the evolution of language (from Nature, subscription required for that). The short overview: scientists taught starlings to recognize basic and slightly more complex language patterns, possibly offering clues as to how we evolved to the point where I can tap buttons on this keyboard and you can know exactly what I’m trying to say even though we’ve never met. Or have we? I’m terrible with faces. 

In any event:

The starlings trained by listening to songs. They had to peck at a hole if a song had the right pattern, and do nothing if it did not. If they chose correctly, the birds got food; if they chose wrong, the lights went out briefly.

It took as many as 40,000 trials, but 9 of 11 starlings learned to recognize the complex AABB pattern over 90 percent of the time. They could even recognize it when three pairs of warbles and rattles were inserted between an original pair of warbles and rattles.

“They can do this, and they do it with a high degree of proficiency,” Dr. Gentner said.


The “AABB” pattern is basically a set pair (AB) inserted into the middle of another, making this pattern slightly more complex than just an ABAB pattern.

It reminds me of the problems we’ve had in the past when we thought we had stumbled upon advanced intelligence in animals, but we managed to fool ourselves rather well. Take for instance Clever Hans. Even Hans’ owner probably thought he was really something — a horse that can do math problems! A person would write “2+5” on a chalkboard, and Hans would tap his foot seven times, amazing his audience. Eventually, scientists figured out that Hans was clever, but in a different way than they had imagined. He was taking the visual cues that his trainers unconsciously gave out, reading the way they tensed for example.

There have been similar issues surrounding the use of sign language with primates. Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are well-known skeptics of the language research — they think that there is a very good possibility that those sneaky little monkeys are getting one over on us. Here’s a more in-depth write-up on that side of the debate.

So it is that this starling study has been heavily criticized. Noam Chomsky is one of those critics, arguing that the fact that the birds have been able to answer correctly does not mean that they are necessarily equipped to learn language and meaning. I imagine that there are going to be a lot more tests before something like this is resolved, but it’s fascinating nonetheless thanks to the intersection of animals, language, and the con artistry we occasionally perform on ourselves.


The BA and IIn other science-related news, I hung out at the Miracle of Science Bar + Grill last night with one of my all-time favorite scientists, The Bad Astronomer (AKA Phil Plait). Hanging out with Phil is one of my top 10 favorite pastimes, so I was pretty happy, even if it did mean walking in the pouring rain for a good half hour trying to get back to the hotel (for him) and the T (for me). Earlier in the evening, we dined with his fabulous coworker Sara(h?) and Pamela of Slacker Astronomy. There was much talk of science, stars, things I didn’t understand, and double entendres aplenty. Good times!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

Related Articles


  1. Lev Simonovitch Vygotsky, in his book "Thought and Language" makes a very strong case for speech being in part responsible for coherent, intelligent thought in humans. Of course, he describes how thought and language develop and constantly influence one another throughout cognitive development; but the implication seems to be that language is what gives "form" to thought. That because of language, our thoughts are not merely undifferentiated emotional perceptions; Language helps to create mind.

    It's an interesting idea, and one I would love to see further tested (Vygotsky describes some ingenious experiments designed to see how language influences thought in young children). But IF this idea is on the right track, then it may be that because some birds are adept at producing and understanding vocalizations, they may be able to grasp some rudiments of grammar and syntax.

    Of course, it's all just an hypothesis. But I think it's one worth testing. After all, our housepets do seem to understand us when we speak to them (though thye're probably picking up on many non-verbal cues that we are not aware of sending).

    I hope they do some follow-up articles on this.

  2. Sorry– That was barely coherent. That's what I get for typing on the fly at work….

  3. I read about that last week… and I remain skeptical… It's an interesting behavioral study, but I don't think we can make any linguistic conclusions here.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button