Great tits use advanced syntax, including speaking in phrases, to warn their fellow birds of incoming danger, a new research reveals. This linguistic trait was previously believed to be unique to human beings.

The Japanese songbird is the first animal known to use the rules of syntax similar to those employed by people. Several species of primates and birds are capable of producing sounds representing commands or things in nature. However, until now, it was believed that only human beings were able to tie together phonetic elements in order to express a wide range of meanings.

Japanese great tits, also known as Parus minor, are known for their diverse collection of calls. An international team of researchers representing Japan, Switzerland and Sweden has found that these animals can piece together calls in order to create new ideas.

The songbirds frequently express "ABC calls," which are warnings about sparrowhawks or other predators in the area. Their "D call" is used to call partners into a nest, or bring birds together to partake in a new supply of food. This may be translated into English as "come here."

These animals are also able to combine these calls into an ABC-D pattern, which alerts the animals about danger, and brings them together to fend off an adversary. When researchers played the calls in this order, the birds came together — ready to fight, or scare off a predator. However, when the sounds were reversed into a D-ABC pattern, the animals did not react to the call to arms.

"The results lead to a better understanding of the underlying factors in the evolution of syntax. Because the tits combine different calls, they are able to create new meaning with their limited vocabulary. That allows them to trigger different behavioral reactions and coordinate complex social interactions," said Michael Griesser from the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Zurich.

Syntax allows human beings to combine sounds into complex ideas using a relatively small number of vocal elements. This new research reveals this ability is not unique to humans, as previously believed.

Analysis of how Japanese great tits use syntax to communicate with other birds was profiled in the journal Nature Communications.

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