• Question: Could bird song/calls help us understand how humans communicate and why we communicate the way we do in any way?

    Asked by Halsey to Rupert on 17 Mar 2017.
    • Photo: Rupert Marshall

      Rupert Marshall answered on 17 Mar 2017:

      Yes – that’s a very perceptive point. I am actually studying conflict resolution in fish at the moment: we have a tank with a glass divider down the middle. One fish gets fed at one end and in the other channel the other fish is fed at the other end. It’s safer in the middle where it’s deeper. When they can see each other they resolve the conflict (going to their own food alone or staying in the middle hungry) by working with the other fish – both go to one end, even though only one of them gets food there, then they both go to the other end: they take turns.

      In birds they don’t fight physically as soon as they have an argument. They start by singing at each other. Then they try to match their songs, as if to say “yes, it’s you i’m singing to”, then the 3rd level is to overlap their songs: interupting each other. Only if they can’t sort out their differences like this do they actually approach and risk physical fighting. If there’s a big difference in quality then the lesser one goes away at an early stage, tail between its legs. If they are very similar, that’s when they can’t decide who’s best without a fight. For humans: talking helps solve issues – diplomacy works.

      Communication can also be a problem if everyone talks at once. Or if all the birds sing at the same time. Or if all the mobile phone companies want to use lots of bandwidth for their 4G signals. Perhaps by studying how birds sort out the issue of singing in the same “acoustic space” we can solve our own problems, fitting mobile phones, freeview tv and 999 radios in a limited range of frequencies. Some birds sing at different times of day. Some sing at different pitches and weavve around others. Important signals, like bird alarm calls, are recognised by all species. So there’s a lot that we can learn and there are some things which are similar in the ways we communicate. Hope that helps – maybe you can come up with some more examples