Humans and Chickadees Understand Each Other

Chickadees Aren’t Just Cute, They Understand Humans

Do you ever get the feeling that the songbirds you’re feeding in your backyard understand you when you “talk” to them?

I’ve always questioned if there was something universal about the sounds we make that allows songbirds to figure out how we’re feeling.

According to research by University of Alberta scientists, humans, Black-capped Chickadees, and songbirds understand how others are feeling through different levels of vocalizations.

Besides being adorable, these cute little songbirds get us, humans.

Besides being adorable, Black-capped Chickadees understand humans
Besides being adorable, Black-capped Chickadees understand humans

Songbirds and Humans Understand Other Species

The research discovered both humans and black-capped chickadees could identify arousal levels in other species.

“The idea is that some species can understand other species’ vocalizations,” explains Jenna Congdon, a Ph.D. student in at the university’s psychology department.

Congdon says a songbird can understand the call of distress of different types of songbirds when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk.

Or if your friend scares you and you scream.

“Both of these are high-arousal vocalizations, and being able to understand what that sounds like in a different species can be very useful,” she says.

Read: Black-capped Chickadee is One-half Ounce of Sheer Toughness

Songbirds understand the call of distress of different types of songbirds when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk
Songbirds understand the call of distress of different types of songbirds when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk

Sounds Like It

Congdon completed two experiments, one involving chickadees and the other involving humans.

Participants distinguished between high- and low-arousal vocalizations produced by other species.

Including alligators, chickadees, elephants, humans, pandas, piglets, ravens, macaques, and tree frogs.

Different Species Understand

Congdon says chickadees were able to identify high arousal among other chickadees, humans and giant pandas.

“This is fascinating because a chickadee that has never come across a giant panda before can categorize high — and low — arousal vocalizations,” says Congdon.

The researchers suspect other species — such as bats, whales, dolphins, and elephants — who learn their vocalizations from parents to survive may have the ability as well.

So next time you’re outside feeding your songbirds, be careful about what you say.

The songbirds understand you.

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  1. Not only do birds understand intonation, but they are very sensitive to facial expressions (i.e. Marzluff). In working with a parrot I found that a smile was a great reward, as parrots appear highly sensitivite to that facial expression.

    More importantly, I recorded and determined through recorded evidence that a parrot is capable of learning language, not just repeating words. My efforts build on efforts to analyze chickadee calls in which the researchers determined through computer analysis that chickadees have what qualified as language. My work shows that birds are able to learn human language, understand the words, and create new sentences to express ideas and thoughts. I wrote a book about the bird’s abilities and statements called “Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.”

    It is amazing what we do NOT know about birds. They are much smarter than most people realize. English is just a second language for a bird that has a native language or even a protolanguage.

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