Cockney sparrow shows dialect is for the birds

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The Independent Online
The hedgerows are in uproar. Cockney sparrows think their Scouse cousins are twittering northern gibberish, and chaffinches in Tyneside cannot make head or tail of the songs sung by their soft, southern relatives in Dorset.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the difference between birds' regional accents is so great that moving a Scottish song bird to a bush in the south of England would have disastrous results when it comes to breeding.

The loudest male gets the choice of female mates, and in the words of the RSPB's Chris Harbard, a bird out of his local patch "simply couldn't pull the birds, so to speak".

"These dialects are found in birds in isolated communities, ones that don't move outside their local areas. One young bird will hit upon a song sung by its elder relatives and will copy it.

"It might be quite different to a song from a relative in another part of the country."

The disparity in bird accents has long been recognised, but new research from a language and communication professor at Oxford University adds weight to the beliefs. Professor Jean Aitchison, the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford, who gave the Reith lectures last year, has found that human language has more in common with birdsong than the calls of apes.

"The links are stronger, because apes don't have the ability to make a series of distinct different sounds like humans do," she said. "We are able to probably because we can walk upright and have developed an L-shaped vocal tract which produces sounds other than purely nasal ones, like birds."

So, just as a baby grows up with a rich local lilt, so does a young bird.