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What's in a song?: Humans, chickadees understand each other, shows U of A research

Black-capped chickadees eat seeds from a bird feeder.
Black-capped chickadees eat seeds from a bird feeder. - Gino Donato

Research at the University of Alberta indicates humans and songbirds are able to understand how each other are feeling through different levels of vocalizations.

The researchers looked at the elements within vocalizations that “indicate a level of arousal such as fear or excitement,” said the school in release this week.

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

“The idea is that some species can understand other species’ vocalizations,” said Jenna Congdon, a student researcher in the psychology department.

“For instance, a songbird is able to understand the call of distress of a different type of songbird when they are in the presence of a predator, like an owl or a hawk. Or, for example, if your friend scared you and you screamed. Both of these are high-arousal vocalizations, and being able to understand what that sounds like in a different species can be very useful.”

Congdon completed two experiments, one involving chickadees and the other involving humans. Participants distinguished between high and low arousal vocalizations from other species including alligators, chickadees and elephants, among others.

Congdon said 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 is able to categorize high — and low — arousal vocalizations,” said Congdon.

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

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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