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Speech to Birdsong Conversion (windytan.com)
144 points by zdw 3 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

What if animals, including humans, share a basic language but over time, humans have lost the ability to understand our animal companions as our brains have optimized language processing for human communication since humans represent the greatest threat to their individual survival?

What if we are the only ones who have no idea how to communicate with anyone not of the same species?

What if other animals send ambassadors to us constantly in the hopes that they will find one human who can understand their language well enough so that the issues facing the rest of the animal kingdom have a voice with those powerful enough to enact meaningful change?

When my cat started each morning with a meow that sounded amazingly close to "Hello!" did it know what it was saying and did it use that word as a tool to get a specific response?

What was that crow trying to tell me that day?

I love to think about this.

As do I.

Great work on this. Hopefully you are able to crack a code that finally allows us to participate in the conversation.

It has always intrigued me that animals recognize when humans are in the area and in general designate a member of the group to monitor us to determine our intentions. I feel like they are experts at human gesture recognition, able to detect intent just from the context of the motions and that some monitor whether we have anything in our hands that could be used against them.

It's hilarious that mockingbirds and other birds will dive bomb people wandering too close to a nest and it's entertaining to think that part of their vocalizing is probably just a series of warnings, epithets and insults as they are forced to take action against the oblivious intruder who bumbled into their territory.

Vocalizations by any animal are just band-limited signals. If we can figure out which frequency components carry the information and derive information about the encoding then we can decipher it.

I tried repeating every vocal noise my cat made and soon found a noise that obviously meant "no!" After a few years of doing this we built up quite a vocabulary. He had a great sense of humor! It helped a lot that he was very vocal, he had an opinion about everything.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about this premise. Birds apparently curse a lot.

Our parakeet had a huge vocabulary that it learned while listening to Mom as she did all the normal housework tasks. There wasn't much profanity involved until Mom demonstrated all the things she had taught the bird to say. After that, Dad and the rest of us saw the awesome potential and began working to expand his vocabulary. Cowboy Bird. Thrilled us all with his ramblings.

"I'm a genu-wine cowboy bird, giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up horsey!"

That was one of his most common pronouncements. Mom taught him to say that.

"I'm a jabberwocky bird."

"Stop that, Bear!"

Bear was our dog. He originally hated the attention that the bird got and once leaped into the air as the bird flew past and caught him in his mouth. We watched for a second as Bear looked triumphantly at us, wings and tail feathers all you could see of the old Cowboy Bird.

Mom rushed in to save the bird, slapping the dog across the nose so he would release it. From that point on the dog carefully guarded the bird since I think he understood that the bird was as much a valued member of the family as he was.

Cowboy Bird, upon being released was hilariously vocal about the ordeal.

"Dammit Bear! Stop that, Bear! Shit! Damn. Dammit Bear! I'm a jabberwocky bird!"

With his admonishments, he seemed to understand the context of the situation perfectly.

I think the bird also had a sense about who was present and able to hear him. He babbled constantly to anyone and almost everyone. There was one person, a friend of my mother's, who despite visiting numerous times never heard the bird say anything. Cowboy Bird was totally muted every time she visited. When she would call on the telephone, the bird stopped talking until the phone call ended. Mom used to try to coax the bird to talk since she had bragged about the bird's large vocabulary so many times but she was never able to get the bird to say a word as long as the friend was in a position to hear. Once the friend was no longer in earshot, Cowboy Bird resumed the verbalizing.

Dad had a crow for a pet as a kid. He taught it to talk though I don't remember how large a vocabulary it had.

My cat, as mentioned earlier, started every morning with a "Hello" until you opened the door and fed her or petted her. When she needed anything, she would pace by the door saying "Hello". She spent more than a year in the shelter before we rescued her. She was an older cat then and has since passed on to her next opportunity. I hope she spends less time in a shelter this time around. Second sweetest cat ever. Mice, birds, lizards, and bugs trembled with fear when she wandered around.

Thanks for the guide to your interesting pets.

If they can put sentences together like that, I imagine Parakeets can probably talk to each other.

If not in the wild, then if they have been educated with humans I'd guess they'd talk to each other in the same human type manner.

They have fowl language.

Yes they do!

I’m sure every animal only ever just says “Come fuck me!”, “Come feed me!” and “Go the fuck away!” or variations thereof.

Very well put.

Btw there is a posting before about whale and it’s changing strategy due to the whaler is very different.

Thanks. Whales are fascinating animals. Every time I see a photo of a whale's eye I am struck by the feeling that the animal is probably smarter than the photographer.

I feel that other animals maintain a complex inter-species communication network that we have evolved to lock ourselves out of once our own capacity to destroy larger, more dangerous animals developed to the point where the main threat to our own survival came from other humans.

Our senses optimized to detect and interpret those signals that come from the largest hazard to our own existence. We still have the ability to recognize other species warning signals - growls from dogs, roars from lions and bears, etc. but we no longer natively understand the content of the message, instead we can only interpret the context before taking any action.

There's a "Turkish bird-language" that's whistled, and dying out now that cellphones are available. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_bird_language

Hear it here: https://youtu.be/l117wfB0g3o

The Silbo Gomero [1] in the Canary Islands falls in this category as well. It was designed to allow far distance communication through the valleys and ravines of the islands. Here [2] is an example.

There are now efforts to preserve the language, but there is a whole generation unable to speak it because cellphones and lack of farmers made the language almost obsolete.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silbo_Gomero [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Silbo.ogg

I didn't know there were so many of those! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistled_language

I've always wanted to do this with dolphins. Basically shift human language into the range of sounds they can produce, and have a reverse path so that sounds they make can be heard in a range a human could make. Then you raise a young dolphin in a 'bilingual' environment. With humans speaking to and playing with the calf while their speech is shifted, and any vocalizations by the adults or calf shifted into a range easy for humans to mimic back.

Basically my thesis is that understanding is possible and that it's facilitated by being able to produce as well as hear a given vocalization.

You may be interested in reading up on Margaret Howe Lovatt[1]:

> In the 1960s, she took part in a NASA-funded research project in which she attempted to teach a dolphin named Peter to understand and mimic human speech.

There are several articles and podcasts which can provide more detail.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Howe_Lovatt

This is actually a really interesting idea.

But then again we hear dogs and cats and still don't understand them. But i guess we can't smell like them either

Think of the possibilities: A simultaneous interpreter for talking to birds.

This brings to mind a Gary Larson cartoon:


I was thinking of this one: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/springtime

The first thing that comes to mind is this old episode of Radiolab I listened to years ago, "Wild Talk", about the inter-species crosstalk in the jungle, which dramatically culminates with a researcher realizing that he was being stalked by a leopard by triangulating a series of monkey alarms: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/98611...

Might be fun to try it out with people with different accents, and see if other people can recognize the accent in the birdsong (without knowing which it is).

My cat went nuts for that. "Entertainment for cats." is right. She's still looking for the bird.

In a previous life I performed research on the neurological basis of birdsong, which is fairly well understood for passerines.

Sounds produced by birds can be divided into two types: songs and calls. Songs are primarily by males to attract mates, and are sung the same song over and over with minimal variation. Females, in turn, are attracted to the males with highest song stereotypy that sound closest to the "ideal" for the species. Calls are used to communicate to other birds of a certain idea, e.g. a predator nearby, and are also consequently standardized.

So while this is indeed very cool, it's my suspicion it won't be recognized as "authentic" by the birds themselves. You can't just "make up" new syllables or sounds and have it be understood.

Another awesome post from windytan.com -- I still love the deep dive on dialup modem signals (listed as a "Popular Post" on the sidebar there).


It's a bit like https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprechgesang, but removing the phonetic information makes it more musical.

I'd love to compare a bird song in Finnish with the English one. Will it be clearly different with only one harmonic?

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