bird song/conversation analysis

Arie Verhagen Arie.Verhagen at
Fri Jun 18 20:53:49 UTC 2010

Given the kind of differences that Tom Givon draws attention to (much of which can be 
summarized as: lack of duality of patterning in birdsong), birdsong is probably better seen, 
not as an analogue to language, but rather to speech. But as such, many similarities 
(behaviorally, developmentally, neurologically) are striking, as already noted by A.J. Doupe 
& P.K. Kuhl (1999). `Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms.´ 
Annual Reviews in Neurosciences 22, 567-631. One important thing is that birdsong is also 
socially learned, thus transmitted culturally (not genetically), leading to dialect formation, 
among other things.

A good relatively recent overview is M. Naguib & K. Riebel (2006), "Birdsong: a Key Model 
in Animal Communication", in K. Brown (ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 
Elsevier. A BIG overview is the volume Nature's Music: The Science of Birdsong, edited by 
P. Marler & H. Slabbekoorn, Elsevier 2004. Both also include discussions of important 
differences between birdsong and bird calls, which may have richer meanings than song.

By the way, behavioral biologists are very good at designing experiments and observational 
setups to investigate the communicative functions of the song of different species of birds, 
including possible functional differences between different PARTS of song (which might be 
seen as a start of some kind of isomorphism). One example that I know of is A. Leitão & K. 
Riebel (2003), "Are good ornaments bad armaments? Male chaffinch perception of songs 
with varying flourish length". Animal Behavior 66, 161-167. But it is actually a huge field 
(witness the Marler and Slabbekoorn volume)!


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