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Noon Edition

Speaking with Tongues

a up-close shot of a rose-ring parakeet's head

Studying the way parrots vocalize can help scientists better understand the way humans vocalize. If you think of it, birdsong and talking have a lot in common.

Birds learn to sing by listening, just like we learn to talk. Both birds and humans have specific areas in their brains responsible for communication.

At the base of parrots' trachea, they have a voice box organ (the syrinx). It's responsible for initiating and modulating sounds. Most birds have a syrinx, but depending on species, they can vary in complexity. However, if you've ever seen a parrot vocalizing, you may have noticed that it bobs its tongue back and forth.

Tongue Is Key

Until recently, scientists weren't sure whether moving the tongue had any effect on the sound making its way up and out of the parrot's throat. Tongue position certainly affects human speech and parrot vocalization too.

Researchers at Indiana University replaced the syrinx in five monk parrots with a tiny speaker and then played sounds through it, checking to see whether moving the parrot's tongue had any effect on the vocalization.

Moving the tongue even just a fraction of a millimeter significantly changed the quality of the emerging sound. The difference was larger than the difference between the A sound and the O sound in human vowels.

Before this study, it was unclear how important the parrot's tongue was in its ability to create complex sounds. The prevailing theory was that parrots' syrinxes were why they, unlike other birds, could imitate human speech.

Sources And Further Reading:

IU News Room. "Imitative parrots just might tell you it's all in the tongue." IU News Room: Indiana University. September 1, 2004. Accessed December 08, 2004.

"Syrinx." Britannica Academic. Accessed December 04, 2004.

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