Visualizing danger from songbird warning calls

“Watch out! Snake!” Hearing this, people cannot help but imagine a snake as they prepare for a possible attack. In human conversation, hearing a particular word (e.g., “snake”) can cause a listener to retrieve a specific mental image, even if there is nothing in the field of vision.

This cognition was once thought to be unique to humans. Now, it turns out that songbirds have a similar ability. A new study in PNAS reveals that a small songbird, the Japanese tit (Parus minor), can retrieve a visual image of a predator from specific alarm calls, providing the first evidence that nonhuman animals can ‘see’ a reference to certain vocalizations.

“The Japanese tit produces particular alarm calls when, and only when, encountering a predatory snake,” explains Toshitaka Suzuki at the Center for Ecological Research, Kyoto University, and author of this study.

Using audio playback of calls and a short stick cut from a tree branch, the researcher discovered that simply hearing snake-specific calls causes the birds to perceive an otherwise inanimate object as a real snake.

Read more at:  Visualizing danger from songbird warning calls

thumbnail courtesy of & Kyoto University / Toshitaka Suzuki