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The Talking Avian Tongue

Discover another surprising task of the avian tongue

By Susan Chamberlain

Avian TongueParrots’ propensity for speech captivated – and continues to do so – humans throughout the ages. In the Middle Ages, some people believed that talking parrots held a special relationship with God. This afforded them an elevated status by the Church. Chaucer remarked about parrots’, also known as popinjays at the time, imitative abilities in “The Canterbury Tales.”

Unlike humans, whose larynx is used for speech, the avian larynx is an airway. The sounds birds make emanate from the syrinx, which is located in the throat at the base of the trachea just before it divides into the right and left bronchi.

Until a few years ago, it was thought that the syrinx was responsible for all the intricate vocalizations produced by the birds. It’s true that many of the parrot sounds we hear come from the syrinx, but this is not the case with all of them. Scientists Roderick Southers, Gabriel Beckers and Brian Nelson have shown that parrots use their tongues to alter and refine their vocalizations. The results of their experiments with quaker parakeets show that even tiny variations in tongue position can make big differences in sound. According to Beckers, this might explain why parrots are such great mimics. The scientists’ experiments showed that movement as small as a fraction of a millimeter could influence the resulting sound.

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Reader Comments
From his first sentence I gathered that he justified the killing of the birds because they were captured as pests by the government and were going to be killed anyway, so why not perform some weird experiments on them. He reported this to the wrong people though. I don't consider any animal disposable, they could have found homes for them, or relocated them at least. I didn't need the visual image of a poor little parakeet head stuck to a speaker with a hemostat or something pulling his tongue in and out.
Terry, Santa Clara, CA
Posted: 10/14/2010 4:42:59 PM
Bernie, Malden, MA
Posted: 1/11/2010 5:06:39 PM
"We obtained feral Monk parakeets that were caught in a government pest control program in Florida, where this South American species has been artificially introduced in the past. We euthanized the animals with an overdose of anesthetic immediately before the start of each experiment. The vocal sound source in parrots is formed by vibrating membranes in the syrinx, situated in the trachea at the tracheobronchial junction [16]. We replaced the syrinx with a small speaker that produced frequency sweeps from 0.5 to 11 kHz and measured the effect of tongue position on vocal-tract resonances. We varied the position of the tongue in the beak systematically in a sagittal plane (front-to-back × low-to-high placements, with respect to the mandible) by using a micromanipulator. The tongue in parrots is underpinned by the hyoid skeleton, which also supports the larynx [15]. Tongue movements thus cause concurrent movements of the larynx
Vocal-Tract Filtering by Lingual Articulation in a Parrot
Current Biology, Volume 14, Issue 17, Pages 1592-1597
G. Beckers, B. Nelson, R. Suthers
Vince, WPG, MB
Posted: 11/13/2009 8:50:50 PM
Is it true that birds were killed for this experiment?
JoJo, Cedar Falls, IA
Posted: 12/13/2008 7:07:34 PM
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