Bird Intelligence -- The Starling
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It's music for us -- but how does it sound to a Starling?

Starlings use songs to advertise their fitness as potential mates, to defend their territory, to warn of danger -- or simply to express their mood.  They can borrow motifs from other songs and embed them in new ones.  Yet, could the significance of starling communication go even farther -- to be considered the beginnings of a human-type language?

Linguists point to the fact that the complex structure of all human speech is governed by innate grammatical rules that have similarities to bird song -- a syntax that uses embedded recursive sounds.

Trained Starlings proved capable of recognizing such patterns by pressing a lever when they noticed the grammatical rules had been broken -- a feat that could not be matched by Tamarin monkeys.


What does the brain of a Starling and a human have in common that allows them to learn grammar?  One possibility is the FOXP2 gene -- remarkably similar in both humans and songbirds.  This gene is a hotspot of human evolution since our lineage split away from the rest of the great apes, and damage to the gene can cause the loss of speech in unfortunate families.  It could be that Starlings are just 7 amino acids away from conversational English!

Perhaps you're confident that human civilization sets us high above the humble starling.  On the other hand, starlings can swarm into flocks of tens of thousands that behave almost as if governed by a single mind. In the century since their introduction in America, they have come one of the most common American birds -- and in those vast, chattering clouds -- who can guess what is being discussed?

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Have you ever wondered what Starlings think about the human species? Find out in this amazing novel by Tanya Sousa: The Starling God.

Our thanks to Richard Smedly and Barely B Films for submitting this video of purposeful behavior in a pet starling:


I thought you might have interest in seeing my European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) using an aluminum foil ball as a tool to transfer food from his powdered dog food dish to his water dish.  He's been doing this for probably a couple months now.  He is 6 months old.


I suspected he was uncommonly intelligent when I kept him as a fledgling (I help rehab starlings).   Enjoy!

Richard Smedley

Barely B Films

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