The Language of Birds

In Hergé’s Red Rackham’s Treasure, Tintin and Captain Haddock follow a lead to an uninhabited island where they come across a population of parrots with the unnerving ability to squawk Haddockian insults. Tintin hypothesises that an earlier generation of parrots were taught to speak by Captain Haddock’s ancestor who visited the island hundreds of years earlier and the skill was passed on to subsequent generations through a type of avian cultural transmission.

The story may sound a little far-fetched but Martyn Robinson from the Australian Museum has found evidence of a similar process occurring in cockatoos, a species well known for their ability to copy human speech. The most likely scenario is that pet cockatoos have escaped or been released from captivity and taken up residence with a group of wild birds. The exotic sounds of human speech may be more appealing to female cockatoos and have been adopted by the rest of the group.

Naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was exploring the Orinoco River in 1800 when he visited a Maipure village. The inhabitants kept a pet parrot that spoke a different language from their owners. They claimed that the parrot had belonged to members of the Ature tribe and spoke their language. The Ature had died out some years earlier and Humboldt realised that the parrot was the last speaker of the language. He recorded forty words which remain the only record of the Ature tongue.

Lyrebirds are superb mimics; an individual may have a repertoire of dozens of other bird calls. They are also able to convincingly recreate sounds of human activity such as chainsaws, car alarms and cameras. These appear to be passed down to subsequent generations since lyrebirds alive today are still heard to make the sounds of older style camera shutters, axes and saws which have not been heard in the lyrebirds’ habitat for many years.

The lyrebirds of Tasmania, introduced to the island in the 1930s, retained the call of the Eastern Whipbird, a species not present on the island, until at least the 1960s and possibly into the 1980s, although with decreasing fidelity.

In 1969, a park ranger in the New England National Park heard a lyrebird reproducing the sound of a flute. The bird was singing fragments of two songs popular in the 1930s, The Keel Row and Mosquito’s Dance. A farmer in the area who had kept a pet lyrebird forty years earlier was known to play a flute. Flute sounds still exist in the repertoire of some of the lyrebirds in the area.

The name lyrebird is a minsomer. The bird's tail does not naturally form the shape of a lyre.

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