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Don’t butt in! Young birds taught the art of conversation

The acquisition of singing rules in canebrake wrens shows a similar pattern to human conversation learning.

A tropical songbird learns how to conduct polite “conversations” from its parents, research has shown.

As every well brought up child knows, it is rude to interrupt. The same lesson appears to be taught to young canebrake wrens, which become better able to avoid singing over their parents as they get older.

Like many other songbirds, adult canebrake wren pairs engage in “duets” in which each partner takes turns to chirp a precisely timed phrase.

Scientists have shown that to-and-fro song duets performed by mated birds mirror human conversations.

One of their functions is thought to be territorial – the male and female singing together in a co-ordinated way to deter interlopers. Another may be to firm up pair-bonding.

Canebrake wren pairs sing highly complex alternating duets, with juveniles joining in by copying the phrases of one or other parent.

This is the first study that provides direct evidence that a duetting bird gradually acquires a duet code during early development Researchers, University of Miami

A team of researchers led by Dr Karla Rivera Caceres, from the University of Miami, US, recorded interactions between adult and young canebrake wrens in their native Costa Rica.

Recordings of their duets showed how young wrens learned the rules of conversation early in life.

Over a period of about 25 days the juveniles became significantly more co-ordinated and “polite”, their interruptions falling by about 20%.

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A pair of canebrake wrens. The songbirds learn from a young age how to have polite conversations (Karla Daniela/PA)

The researchers wrote in the journal Royal Society Open Science: “This is the first study that provides direct evidence that a duetting bird gradually acquires a duet code during early development.

“This proposed learning pattern is similar to human conversation learning. In humans, higher cognitive skills needed to exchange ideas … can be learned throughout life, but exposure to speech interactions during early development is nevertheless vital for the general ability of individuals to engage in conversations.”

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