For birds, eavesdropping on neighborhood gossip can mean the difference between life and death. Wild critters listen to each other for clues about lurking predators such as hawks or snakes. Birds, for example, can learn to flee when neighbors cluck “hawk!”—or, more precisely, emit a distress call.
The fairy wren is a small Australian songbird. It’s not born knowing the “languages” of other birds. But it can master the meaning of a few key “words,” as scientists explain in the journal Current Biology.
Birds have several ways of acquiring life skills. Some knowledge is innate—built in to a bird’s design by God. Some is acquired from experience. Andrew Radford is a biologist at the University of Bristol. He and other scientists are exploring a third way: acquiring information from peers.
The colleagues wandered the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra with customized “tweeter speakers.” They sought out solitary fairy wrens. They wanted to be certain that the birds would react only to sounds, and not to other birds’ behavior.
The scientists first played two recorded sounds. One was the alarm cry of a thornbill, a bird not native to Australia. The other was a computer-generated bird sound dubbed “buzz.” On first hearing these sounds, the 16 fairy wrens tested had no particular reaction.
The scientists then trotted around the park, continuing to play the recordings. They attempted to train half the birds to recognize the thornbill’s alarm cry as a warning sound, and the other half to recognize the computer-generated “buzz” as a distress call. They did that by playing the previously unfamiliar sounds in conjunction with noises that the birds already associated with danger, such as fairy wrens’ own distress cry. To put that in human terms, it would be like playing the German word “Achtung!” at the same time as the English word “Danger!” An English-only speaker would learn that the two words carry the same message.
After only three days, the feathered pupils passed the scientists’ test. The two sets of fairy wrens responded to the sound they had been trained on by fleeing for cover. Both groups remained indifferent to the other sound.
Previous research had shown that fairy wrens can learn the meaning of distress calls when actually encountering a predator. But this study showed that the birds associated new sounds with a literal meaning—even though the “danger” was only an abstract idea.
You might say one bird’s distress tweet can go viral.