CHRISTMAS LECTURES 1973: Sir David Attenborough - Foreign Languages

Sir David reveals how animals interact and communicate with different species.

Animals not only have to communicate with their own species, but with animals of different kinds. This sort of communication is necessary when two different species of animal live closely together or come together for a special purpose.

Sometimes, one animal depends on another. The former is known as a ‘parasite’, since it exploits the other animal and uses its own language to deceive it. Alternatively, both animals might benefit from their association. In these cases the two species will come to share a language between them, understood by both.

We ourselves try to communicate with other animals. Usually we do this by teaching animals to understand a language that we have devised and which is really foreign to them, like asking a dog to ‘sit’. Perhaps much more interestingly, we sometimes are able to speak to the animal in its own language. 


Natural World, Being Human


Sir David Attenborough
London, UK
Filmed in:
The Theatre

Royal Institution, BBC

Collections with this video:
CHRISTMAS LECTURES 1973: The Language of Animals

Licence: Courtesy of BBC



This is Mr. Winterton and this is Lad. And we're going to talk today about foreign languages. That is, languages between different kind of animals. We're a kind of animal, he's a kind of animal, Mr. Winterton's a kind of animal. And we're going to talk about how Mr. Winterton talks to Lad, to start with.

Mr. Winterton how do you talk to Lad? I mean, Lad is a champion, isn't he?

Yes, yes.

An English sheepdog.

A border collie.

A border collie, but sheepdog.

A sheepdog.

A sheepdog -

Yes, a sheepdog.

-working in England.

A working dog.

From Leicestershire as I happen to know, which is where I was brought up. And he's a champion. And how do you actually communicate to him?

Well if I could just generalize very, very quickly, I believe that a dog has great instinct. And he has a great memory, and he's very receptive to sounds. And if I create a sound often enough and often enough to a particular condition then he will accept it and respond to it.

If I could quickly say quoting Pavlov, who wrote on conditioned reflexes and this is much too long to quote here today, he started his first chapter that a puppy always wags his tail when you feed him. So if you got a handbell and rang it, and rang this bell often enough every time you fed the puppy, then eventually you ring the handbell and the puppy wags his tail. And this is basically how I first put a sound through to a dog.

And what sounds do you put through to your dogs?

When I start with a young dog and I want to communicate with him very gently then I use a human voice. Very simple sounds, one syllable sounds, he can't communicate in sentences. He will take in just simple, single sounds.

So Lad itself - I mean, it happens to be his name - but that is a signal isn't it?

Oh yes. He can understand an intonation of Lad. If I was cross with him and I said, Lad! Then he would stop. If I said, Lad, Lad, Lad, Lad Lad, then he would be pleased and come to me. If I wanted him to move to one side and I just went, Lad. I can get another movement. So I get many movements from just the intonation of just his word Lad.

But supposing I said I don't want you to use the word Lad, I want you to use the word stop. Could you get him to go by saying the word stop?

Oh yes. Because every time I physically made him stop and I said stop, and actually I'll show you in a moment if I may, that he's trying to stand still. But equally so if I was a Welshman and I had used a sound for the same thing I would say savannah.

Would you?


These people would not understand savannah but they would understand stand still.


Because it's just a creation of sound.

Fine. But in addition to words what other methods do have?

I have in my hand a whistle which is a bent piece of brass, which I make myself. The reason I use this is because I can blow many sounds with it. And where I would say to Lad, stand still, he would stand still. Equally so - may I blow this?


That is the same signal as stand still.

Yes. And what is to move with that?

If I wanted him to walk on -


The only reason that I use this particular method is because I have a very high roof to my mouth and I can't whistle loudly with my fingers. This is really just an artificial aid. It's no mysterious piece of equipment.

What about the very high frequency, the so-called silent dog whistles that we sometimes hear about?

We don't use them with the collie dog, we're communicating with the dog to work sheep. I have a silent whistle here, so-called silent whistle. In actual fact I don't believe that there - for the purpose for communicating with a dog - that there is an actual inaudible sound that a human being can create to the dog.

I have got this on the highest pitch and -


-you can still hear it.

Can you all hear that? Yeah, Yeah.

I experimented with this dog two or three days ago and he can hear that at about 300 yards.

Really? But he can actually hear sounds that we can't hear, isn't that right?

Oh yes, yes. We had the trouble this morning when we were first trying to see what Lad would do - and the very high oscillations from the equipment here - and he just wasn't - you know, what's it all about?

So that although those of us around here, at least me and perhaps some of you, don't hear noises from these cameras and these - well we do hear some noises - but there are much higher frequency noises which we don't hear at all but which are probably deafening to poor old Lad. So we are talking to him actually above, or rather below, a hubbub of other noises that you and I can't hear.

Oh yes, yes.

So how many distinct instructions can you give Lad? What different words have come up?

He is genetically bred to follow sheep. And the fact that he works sheep is genetic. This is inherited, his transmittance of being able to control sheep. I want five basic commands to do anything that I wish to do with him. I can't make him work. I can't create him.

All I can do is harness him to accept my commands. I can communicate with him. And I want five commands. And I can do anything basically with sheep, with him, with five commands.

Five. Now, let me ask a more difficult question to see how far this question of communicating between human beings and a dog can go. You've got five. Can you actually put any of those five together in groups of say two or three? That is to say, do you have one for say go, and then another one which says slow or fast, or for sheep, or right or left? I mean can you say, go left?

Yes but not as complicated as you've made it. I can put one sound at a time, but I cannot computerize him and say walk on, go left, stop. And he wouldn't do three series. He would only do one at a time.

Which is a fundamental difference between our language and the language you use for him.

Yes. I'm not technically qualified, but from my own purpose and training I accept that they have no load to the brain. So you can feed nothing in more than a single sound.

Fine. Mr. Winterton, thank you very much indeed. And thank you Lad.


Thank you very much. Now I asked Mr. Winterton all those questions and he made the points very clearly. He made the points that there are only actually five instructions which he has trained Lad to understand. And each one is a simple, separate one.

He can't put them together in the ways that you and I can put words together. He can't say, go quickly, go slowly. What he can say is, go quickly, as one instruction. Do you understand what I mean? Yeah.

But actually, enormously intelligent the border collies are and sheep dogs in general are, there are other animals which can be trained to take even more instructions than that. I wonder if anybody would know what that is? Any guesses?

A spear?

A spear. Not a bad guess.

A crowbar.

A crowbar.

Elephants behind the ear. The answer came from the right. Officially, the technical term, it's called a goad. And it is indeed, it's a rather splendid one, decorated with ivory and so on. And it is indeed for controlling elephants.

And elephants have perhaps the most complicated set of signals of the kind that we've been talking about with Lad. They can understand at least, not five as Lad can do, but 30 different words of instruction. And furthermore, if you actually add to those words this rather formidable instrument - which I agree with you looks very like a spear and I certainly wouldn't like it jabbed behind my right ear - but if you actually do use this, then you can use it on the elephant in an enormous number of different ways.

This is a diagram not actually of the different places where you can use your goad on an elephant, because a mahout sitting up there is certainly not going to be able to get it on its tail. But those actually are places of where the nerves all come together to form very special sensitive spots.

And so a mahout sitting on the elephant's neck there can go to one, two, three, four, five places on the ear alone with this which will give a quite different signal to the elephant. So between them the mahout's words and the mahout's gestures or jabs with the goad can produce an awful lot of different instructions.

And indeed what is rather touching about mahouts and elephants is that as you probably know elephants have a life span which is about the same as a human life span. So that when it's about 60 or 70 it's getting on in age. When it's about 40 it is in its middle age. And when it's about 10 or 12 or 14 it is young and frisky, but nonetheless very intelligent.

So what happens is that young Indians who are going to train to look after elephants, actually when an elephant is born, a mahout will take his newly-born son, if he has one. And the two creatures, the elephant and the young boy, will grow up together, go through their childhood together, start their working life together, and indeed retire together.

But nonetheless the language which those elephants and the mahouts use are essentially like those that Lad obeyed so beautifully. That is to say they are simple, straightforward instructions, rather like the spot on the herring gull's bill produces one reaction. So this is one gesture with the goad or one word which produces one particular reaction, which is not what you and I would call a language.

Right. Well those are ways in which human beings have learned how to communicate with animals. But mark you, what we have done, we human beings have done, is not learn the animals' language. Mr. Winerton didn't say woof woof or anything like that. Neither have the dogs or the elephants learned human language. Because, as Mr. Winterton said, he could actually equally well control the dog by saying stop in order to make it go.

What I now would like to look at is animals which have developed their own ways of communicating with us in a very special way. Actually you can all think of examples of ways in which your pets communicate with you. Can you? Who's got a dog? Lots of people got a - you've got a dog. Does he ever want to leave the room?


And what does he do?

Well he cries a bit.

He cries, does he? Does he do any actions?

Walks rather fast.

Walks rather fast?


Anybody else who has got a dog that does anything? Have you got a dog? What does he do when he wants to leave the room?

Scratches the door.

He scratches the door? Yes?

Ours paws us on our knees

He sort of comes over to you and makes that sort of gesture on your knee.


And you know what he means don't you?


Exactly. And he's not even doing it to the door from what you tell me, he's doing it on your knee. So that he has learnt to come over to you, which the door maybe somewhere else altogether different, and go like that on your knee and you know that that means, please I'd like to go into the garden for a run. Is that right?

Now you see that's actually very remarkable isn't it? That is an animal - which I bet you didn't teach it. Did you teach it? He just did it by himself?


There you are. You see there is an animal that hasn't learned to say, please will you open the door because I want to go for a run in the garden. But it has learned to signal to say to us, please open the door. And there are even more complex examples of that way of animals learning how to communicate with human beings.

Let me show you one of the most extraordinary. It is a bird which lives in Africa, particularly in East Africa where I've seen it, a bird called a honeyguide. This is what it looks like.

If you go out for a walk in the African Savanna you may suddenly find - that's the cock honeyguide - you may suddenly find the male honeyguide coming around you making a terrific noise. Not trying to get away from you, actually physically trying to attract your attention just like your dog tries to attract your attention to leave the room.

And he's trying to attract your attention to say something quite different. He's saying, please follow me. And if you are a hunter, and particularly if you're somebody who likes honey, you'll be very wise to do so. And indeed even if you don't want to do so the bird makes a frightful nuisance of itself trying to persuade you to follow it.

And what it is actually doing is leading you towards honey. And the reason is it leading you towards honey is that the bird itself can't get the honey out of a bee's nest by itself. So if you are somebody who wants some honey you will go out into the bush and sometimes call up the bird with a particular call.

And the bird answers with this sort of chattering sort of call, which you can hear at the moment, together with a rather swooping flight in which it flares its tail feathers. And eventually, and often it only takes 10, 15 minutes, it will lead you to a big tree and there it will stay simply chattering away in the branches and refusing to budge.

And then you can be pretty sure that there is actually a bee's nest in that tree somewhere. Now getting honey out of a bee's nest in Africa is a very complicated business. And one which certainly the bird can't do for itself, particularly when it's in a deep hole like that.

So what you have to do, unless you are very brave indeed, is to try and drug the bees, stupefy the bees, calm the bees in some way so that they won't all come out in a great swarm and sting you very badly. And in order to do that you need to make fire. And once you've made fire you want to get hold of something which will actually make a lot of smell when you set it alight.

So while your friend is hammering pegs up the side of the baobab tree so that he can climb up towards the nest, you get hold in this instance of some dried elephant dung and put it in the fire. And dried elephant dung, I happen to know, makes a great deal of smoke.

And then you climb up with the elephant dung burning in your hand and you stick it in the hole. And it doesn't look very effective does it? On the other hand it would be worse if he hadn't got it.

Now all this time the honeyguide has remained in the tree, chattering away, encouraging you to go up and get what honey you can. What you do is you stuff the elephant dung into the hole. There's the honeyguide again. And eventually the bees will be sufficiently drugged for you to be able to reach inside and bring out the honey.

Now you may get 10, 15 pounds of honey out of a nest like that. And it's very valuable stuff because it takes a lot of labor. And it takes a lot of courage, too, to climb up baobabs like that. And certainly you will be stung to some degree. So you may think that the honey they get is very valuable.

And you may think too that if you had it you would make quite sure you kept every small portion of it because it was so valuable. And because, in fact, it took so much labor to get. In fact, the local people there believe very strongly indeed that they have a sort of bargain with the honeyguide. The honeyguide showed them where the nest was, the bees nest was, and it is only fair therefore, that the honeyguide should get a reward.

And so they always take a good piece of comb, laden with honey and stick it like that onto a branch and that is the honeyguide's share. And furthermore, they also believe that if you didn't do that, if you break the bargain, if you didn't play fair with the honeyguide as it were, the next time you went hunting honey a honeyguide would appear, chatter away and lead you infallibly towards a rhinoceros, or an angry elephant, or a cobra.

And as soon as the hunters left the honeyguide comes. And they not only eat grubs like that, but they also actually eat wax. They are almost the only animal in the world that can digest wax and get value out of it. They have a particular sort of digestive system that enables them to do that.

And so there we have an example of a bird and a man who've developed a language of signs which them between them both to get advantages. The man gets the honey and so does the honeyguide. Right, well now I want an experiment I think.

Have I got a chair? Now who will come and help me? Good heavens. You come and help me, yes you. Now you're going to be sorry. You sit there. I'm going to take my coat off.

Now if I put this on what do you think this might be? What would you think I was if I wore this?

A doctor?

A doctor, yes, anything else?

A dentist.

A dentist, anything else?

A barber.

A barber. That's what it is. How are you feeling, all right?


A barber . Are you getting worried at all yet? All right, supposing you were in the barber shop, you would have come along and I would've put you in the chair. Must do this up, I'll have put you in the chair.

And you would have known I was a barber because I was wearing this and I'd have done a certain amount of that, wouldn't I? You see... So that we're all set now, and then - Is this the best we've got? Nevermind, I'm awfully sorry about the quality of these scissors.

Now I just want to show, you see, if I was a barber and I sort of went this like this, and I started cutting here, and I did that, what you do? Would you put your head to one side? You would. Let me turn you around a bit more.

So I would be doing this. And then if I was getting over here and I would came to clip over there, I did that you, and you would put your head like that. Or even, like that you'd do that wouldn't you? And supposing you wanted me to cut in a particular place, what would you do?


You'd gesture with your head, wouldn't you? Yes you would. Although I'd be saying to you, did you go to pantomime this year and things like that, all the time that we were talking I would be doing little things on your hair, wouldn't I? And you'd be doing little things on your hair, which would be a sort of language of gesture between us. Do you think? Yeah, I think so.

And when I actually showed you the mirror and that sort of thing and you said, terrible but it's too late. And then I would take that away and put that down there. And then you'd get up and then maybe I'd do that. Do you think I would? Would it be any good? No, I doubt it. Thank you very much indeed.


I can get away with as little cut off as you've got, really. Now you see, the point was, there are a number of things that happened then. First of all, she recognized and you recognized that I was being a barber. So that if I walked into a room where there was such a chair, you would have known who it was who was going to cut the hair simply because I have the right sort of signals on.

Secondly, I would have gestured you to the chair and you would've sat down because you knew. And then we would both have gone into a sort of routine of signals. You would be holding your head like that, and I would be giving you little nudges like that.

Now animals also develop, between quite different species, quite different kinds of animals, that sort of dialogue. Fish, I mean it sounds silly to say that fish have barber shops, but fish actually have what are called cleaning stations. On a coral reef there are places on the coral reef where big fish will go to get cleaned up, to get rid of the parasites, to have any scratches or wounds that they may have on them cleaned, to get them their toilet generally sorted out.

They're called cleaning stations. And they are very remarkable places. Because first of all, fish that normally pray on one another when they go into the cleaning station, when they go into the barber shop as you might say, do not pray upon one another. There's a sort of truce.

Secondly, when they go in they sort of loll about in a particular sort of way waiting to be cleaned. And thirdly, there is a particular sort of fish called a cleaner fish which does all these jobs for them. And I'd like to show it to you.

It too has - this is not a cleaner fish. This is an anemone fish, which I'm going to come to in a minute. And the anemone fish is important because it has got a relationship with these sea anemones here which normally sting one another to death.

If a strange fish goes into this anemone it will be stung and eaten by the anemone. But this particular fish, which is called a clownfish, lives inside this anemone bathing amongst these delicate fronds - tentacles - of the anemone. And is never stung.

Now nobody knows why that happens. There is some strange relationship between the anemone and that clownfish which makes it immune. Which makes it all the more surprising that cleaner fish when they go against really aggressive, fierce fish, like perhaps rock cod or moray eel why they should remain unprotected. And yet they do.

And the reason is partly in the way that I showed you with that coat and partly because they do a special sort of dance. When the cleaner fish comes along, it will dance in front of the fish that have come to the cleaning places to be cleaned up. And there is the cleaner fish. And you see? It is dancing about this large rock cod. And the rock cod is just lying there.

Now watch it now. It comes down, see it's back there, it comes over the top. And you see, it gave a little nudge there. Now it does that regularly and that is almost certainly a signal to say to the rock cod, open up your gill slits and allow me to go inside the gills to clean you.

And it is a most complicated language all of dance and gesture between the cod that have to be cleaned and the cleaner fish. And not only do the cod come, but huge things like manta rays come down to these particular places on the coral reef. And here they've got not cleaner fish, but remoras which swim underneath them all the time as they go.

And there is no doubt at all that these sort of barber shops of the reef are places where all sorts of fish of many, many different species, manta rays, sharks, moray eels, rock cods, all come down. And all have developed a language which they all understand. Which is a sort of truce to say, now we are not going to get into trouble with one another. We're not going to eat one another. Now we have come down to be cleaned.

Now this is a model of the cleaner fish. And it's a wrasse, like that, with a long stripe to it. But sometimes amongst it another kind of fish appears like that almost identical. Any differences? Anyone see any differences? What?

It's got another fin on the bottom.

On it like a flash. Any more?

It's got larger fins.

It has got larger fins. You can see, can you? Yes?


Yes you. The bottom one, it's got a fin that goes on top, a fin that goes higher on the top.

Quite correct, quite correct. But in spite of the fact that you are all so very bright and very quick to discover the difference, actually they're very similar aren't they? I think you would agree as well. Wouldn't you? Very similar.

And in fact at these barber shops of the coral reefs, these cleaning stations where these fish swim, a few of these sometimes occur. And they actually don't even belong to the same family as these. They have developed the same patterns and certainly imitate these. And why?

Because these, I regret to say, actually are not cleaner fish but when they get into the gills or by the side of some fish which has said OK I've been cleaned as is I am in a barber shop, they bite great lumps out of them. A very unpleasant characteristic, but they are cleaner fish mimics and they actually live by biting hunks out of the fish that come into the barber shops.

OK, thank you very much. Now there is one further bit of communication between two widely different creatures in the sea, which is perhaps the most extraordinary of all. There's a thing called a sea cucumber that lives in the Mediterranean and indeed in the topics. And it's about that big and it's a relation of the sea urchins and the starfishes.

So if you imagine a starfish that's been sort of pulled that way then you've got sea cucumber about that length. And a sea cucumber has a relationship with something else which is really very extraordinary indeed. Here's the front end of a sea cucumber. And like the starfish and the sea urchins it's got two legs, two feet which enables it to move over the surface of the sand at the bottom of the sea.

And it breathes through its anus, the back end. It sucks in water where its gills are inside there and then it blows the water out again. There. And sometimes something else comes out apart from bits of sand.

Watch. A fish. It is almost unbelievable, but there is a special kind of fish which lives nowhere else except inside sea cucumbers. And sometimes there may be two or three of these fish, which are called a fieraster, inside a sea cucumber.

Now that, you may think, is pretty odd. But again if you think more about it there may be problems of communication, because how does a fieraster fish, for example, get back inside the sea cucumber? It must have some way of communicating with the sea cucumber. Well, watch and see what happens.

That is not yet the back end of the sea cucumber. He's moving down it. He's got to come out presumably in order to feed, now watch. Now did you notice? You see in a flash of a second - to start with his head was there and then suddenly his tail was there. Now his tail is there because presumably there is not room inside a sea cucumber to turn around.

I don't know but I presume so - presumably what he wants to be sure of doing is not coming out in a hurry from the sea cucumber in case there's danger. Of being able to just stick his head out and have a look around to make sure there's no problem and then get in. That means that he's got to go in tail first.

But he can't apparently give the proper signal for getting in just by his tail. So when he comes out again, thank you very much, he will go for a bit of a spin around. And then I want you to watch once more how in fact he manages to get back in.

And what he actually does, is that he has a particular sort of bite, a particular sort of nudge which he gives to the sea cucumber, that particular point. And that is enough to make the sea cucumber open just slightly. And quick as a flash he whips his tail around and puts his tail in. Just watch.

There's the nudge. And there was the tail. And back he goes in. Right. So now those are ways in which animals have developed languages to speak to other kinds of animals. And it's to the - the fireasp, to that fish - it's to its advantage that it should develop that language.

But now let me show you a way in which animals have learnt other animal's languages for a slightly different reason. Now this is a model of the mouth of the Thames. And you can see all sorts of names on it and you can see tankers moving down it. And if this was at night then all these little bulbs which you see on it would be flashing in one way or another. In fact, rather like that.

Now I've got to chart here. Which we used as the basis in order to make this. Just imagine that you're in that tanker coming up there. Now you want to know exactly where you are and one of the reasons you want to know where you are, one of the ways you would know where you are, is by identifying those lights.

So let us take that one there. Let's take that red one there, which would be about here. Now that says on the chart, quick, fla, re. That's what it says, quick, fla, re, which means I believe quick flashing red, which is indeed what it's doing. Whereas this one says fla, re, five sec, which means flashing red every five seconds, which is that one there which is indeed what it is doing.

So that if you are a skipper of that vessel going up there by using this chart you can identify, simply by the way in which it is flashing, exactly where you are, exactly which buoy you are. Correct. Now of course there are some animals which also use lights and flashes and for just that purpose.

Now let me show you approximately how they do it. There's a great deal we do not yet know about luminescence, about the way in which animals produce light. But we know approximately how it goes.

They have in their bodies a fluid which is the equivalent of this. And then they have in glands a fluid which is the equivalent of this. And they are able to squirt in little jets, almost, the equivalent of this into the equivalent of that. Let me show you what happens when you do that. Let's have the lights down.

Now then, one, two, three, squirt. Did you see that? So I do it again. One, two, three, squirt. You see that green light. Now as a matter of fact, I know it's a terrible thing to say, I think that is so marvelous. Let's do it on a bigger scale.

Right. Lights down again. One, two, three, how about that?


Now that approximately is the way in which animals produce what is called cold light. And some of the things that do it are things like this. Well, almost like that. Actually they're only about that big and they're called fireflies. They're only about half an inch long, quarter of an inch long even.

And they are common, there are fireflies in this country, but the particular ones I know best are in the tropics. And their tails have lights in them. Like that, see? Right. And each firefly has a particular signal just like the lights in the midway.

Not only each kind of firefly has that signal, but each sex has that signal. There is a firefly which has the happy name of photinus consanguineous And the male photinus consanguineous flies through the air going, bah bum, bah bum, bah bum, that's better, bum, bum, bum.

So it goes in two sections. Two calls then a pause, and two calls and a pause. And the female photinus goes boom when she hears the first two. So that you get this double flash and then the female goes, like that.

And that is very, very splendid because that is communication between the male and female. And when actually the female does go boom, like that, the male alights on the same leaf, they wiggle their antennae at one another, and smell one another to make sure they've got the right sort of smell.

And then they mate and everything's splendid. And you are saying, well that might be so but why on earth is he telling me in this lecture because he should've told me that when we were talking about in the second lecture about mating. I mean why should you do this in a lecture which is supposed to be about foreign languages?

Well the answer to that question is that some of the scientists who are doing research on this lovely thing, photinus cosanguineous, hit on the idea of trying to get hold of the female fireflies by imitating the males. So that they actually swum down the river going bah bum, bah bum. And when they saw something that went boom, you see, they moved along and courted.

But then they - I do beg your pardon - but then they found that some of them were not photinus cosanguineous at all, but they were female of a completely different genus called photuris. A quite, quite different - a sort of firefly - but quite different, not closely related at all.

And I'm sorry to tell you this sad tale, but the fact of the matter is that this quite different firefly has learned the language of another species, the mating language of another species. And, uses it to lure these poor unsuspecting males of the photinus down onto the leaf and as soon as they land she has them for breakfast.

And the female photuris lives on nothing else but the males of a different kind of firefly. And only when she gets a completely different signal from the males of her own kind will she mate. So there we have a further example of a language which one kind of animal has learned from another kind of animal. Let's put them away.

Now, I'd like to see - never going to work again - now I'd like to see, here we are, thank you. Now I want to show you some animals. This is an African bird called a whydah, And I won't stand too close so that he's not too frightened.

And he is a giant whydah, the one who's on the perch now, and the one that's joined him is his mate. And as you will see they are very different. And you may recall in an earlier talk we suggested that if you found a bird, the male of which is very, very elaborately decorated with feathers and the female of which was drab, you could come to some sort of conclusion. Do you remember what that was?

That the male took no part in the rearing of the young.

The male took no part in the rearing of the young. Quite right. I delight to see lots of hands go up. That's right, and this is indeed so with the whydah.

Now, this whydah actually does just as you've said, but there are about a dozen whydahs in Africa and others of the species. the females have decided that by and large this is not a very fair rearrangement. The gentleman spends all his time dancing and she has to do all the housework. And so she, the female of these other whydahs, have adopted a different solution.

They have decided in that case they might as well lay their eggs in somebody else's nest and not bother with it at all. And so the other whydahs parasitize by laying their eggs in other nests. Little birds, waxbills, like these. Little finches. Now of course this sort of brood parasitism you might think is fairly simple. The bird simply goes along and lays the eggs and there's the end of it.

But there are serious problems. You will recall that - thank you - you will recall call when we were looking at some birds in a earlier talk, we concluded that the patterns of the gape were very important. That they were constituted language. They were a sort of signal to the female, to the mother, to say please put the food in here.

And it so happens those kind of finches have a very elaborate pattern in their gape, like that. Which has blue patches here, a black patch there, and white here. Now if that whydah laid its egg in a finch's nest which had that sort of pattern, if the chick grew up and didn't have that sort of pattern, it would starve because the female would not feed it.

So in order to really survive the whydah parasite has to develop - make sure that its chick has almost exactly the same pattern. And here's a model of a whydah chick gape. Which again, while it is not actually identical, it's very similar because it has white here, and it has blue there, and it has a black patch there.

But there's one further complication which is really extraordinarily interesting and difficult. The paradise whydah has about six different kinds, six different races, the adults of which are very, very similar. But each one of them parasitizes a different kind of finch. And for the sake of argument let's call them a one-spot finch and a two-spot finch, spots in the gape.

Now unless both the male and the female are of the same kind, let us say one-spot finch whydahs, their chicks will not have one-spots. Because they will be hybrids and they might be any sort of pattern and certainly not precisely the sort of pattern they should be. So therefore it is essential that the male recognize the one-spot finch whydah female.

In spite of the fact that they are extremely similar, how on earth is that done? And the answer is very interesting and surprisingly simple, as they are so often in these natural history things. But what happens is that the one-spot whydah finch nestling as it grows up in the nest learns to speak some of the language of the one-spot finch which is its host.

So that when it grows up, when it sings, it sings I was brought up in a one-spot finch's nest, whydah. And so a male can recognize the female when they both were brought up in the same school, if you like. And so they know that they are therefore suited to one another and then therefore produce the right sort of nesting.

A complicated story, but again a story of learning one another's languages. Thank you very much. Now of course you will know that there aren't just whydahs in the world which lay their eggs in other bird's nests, we've got one in this country which also does and that is a cuckoo with a pied wagtail.

Now the cuckoo has slightly different problems. The cuckoo doesn't have a problem over gape. And it doesn't have a problem over gape because, as I'm sure you know, the young cuckoo turfs the other nestling out of the nest. So that there is no competition. But it does have a different solution.

You remember these two models. This was the herring gull bill with a red spot and we saw how actually you could make that even more effective. You could make it into a super normal signal by turning it into that, which is even redder, with an even more important shape, a more significant shape, and even greater contrast. And we call that, as I say, super normal.

Now what the cuckoo does, the cuckoo when it is in the nest has a signal which is like that. Which is a yellow gape. And that yellow gape, in nearly every instance, is bigger and better as it were than the gape of the nestlings of the true parents, which it has supplanted.

So that this, the cuckoo, actually has a super normal gape signal. And what's even more distressing, as far as the parents are concerned and more alarming, is that it never turns off. Well, hardly ever turns off, because the young ones or let us say robin, when you fed the robin it shut up and that was the end of it. But the cuckoo is so much bigger than its host that it is always hungry.

And it goes on and on and on and on begging so that other birds can continue putting food in this sort of bottomless pit. And indeed this signal, which is the super normal signal as I explained, is so powerful that actually you will find when young cuckoos, this is a young one, sits on a fence you'll find that not only the original foster parents feed it, but all sorts of other birds who happen to be walking around with a mouthful of grubs suddenly see this great yellow gape come up. And they think, good lord yes, and they stuff it in there.

Well there is a further problem about cuckoos, which I dare say you would know about, and that is concerns the eggs. Unlike the whydah birds, the cuckoos don't just parasitize one particular species, but several different species. The population of cuckoos working the English countryside may parasitize robins, they may parasitize pied wagtails, they may have parasitize reed-warblers. They may go into lots of different sorts of nests.

And if they made eggs which were different, those eggs might be thrown out by the parents. So in a most miraculous way cuckoos lay eggs which match the eggs in the nest of the foster parent. These are three different sorts of cuckoos. This is the common English cuckoo and these are reed-warbler's eggs and that's the cuckoo's egg. Extraordinarily similar.

This is the great spotted cuckoo which is a bird which you'll find in Southern Europe and which migrates to Africa, and which often parasitizes magpies. Those are four magpies' eggs, that's the cuckoo's egg. And this is a third kind of cuckoo, which is a cuckoo which lives in Asia. And which parasitizes a thrush, jardine's thrush, and that lays eggs which are pure blue. That, I think, and I can't honestly be sure, but I think that is the cuckoo's egg and those are jardine's thrush.

Now, how does a cuckoo do that? And the answer to that question is that it does it because the female alone carries the necessary hereditary formula which determines the way the eggs are colored. And one female only patternizes one particular kind of nest.

So we've talked now about the way in which human beings devise a language to talk to animals, a ways in which animals talk to other animals, and now just for a minute, the way in which we learn other animal languages.

Now it's pretty important on certain occasions that we actually do learn the way other animals communicate. There's a rather sad story, which I ought to tell you, about a man in a zoo in Australia whose job was to look after the great red kangaroo that they had there. Which is an absolutely magnificent kangaroo, very tall, and very strong, and very big.

And as you probably know kangaroos actually fight in a ritual way with their forepaws. They rear up and they go, and sort of box one another. Which sometimes in circuses they train kangaroos to put boxing gloves on them, but actually that's the sort of thing they do in the wild. Now the man who looked after them, I'm sorry to say, was rather a small man.

And every time he went into the kangaroo enclosure he went into the kangaroo enclosure and the kangaroo fetched him a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] one and knocked him down. And he complained about this and he said that he thought it wasn't really fair. And they said, well keep on with it, keep going Jones. And he did keep going.

Every time he went in he was knocked down. Until he realized that he inadvertently was saying the wrong thing to the kangaroo. He hadn't really learnt the kangaroo's language. Because rearing up is, in kangaroo language, a gesture which means I am strong, I am challenging you. So every time he went in standing like that, the kangaroo knocked him down.

So what he had to learn to do, was that if he took a submissive posture and he went in like that, the kangaroo thought it was all right. And indeed it worked. So you see learning kangaroo's languages is pretty important.

Now we have got all sorts of other ways of learning animal languages. And this is a selection of very strange objects. Let me put that to one side for the moment. Very strange objects. And I'm not sure whether I can work them, but let's just see.


Any offers? A mating taxicab? No. Yes?

A duck.


I think so. A goose perhaps?


I think a goose. What's this one?


A duck.

A duck, yes. I think if I was better at this, or -


Now all these instruments that I'm playing to you are bits of equipment that have been devised by us in order to speak animal languages for whatever purpose we want. We might actually want to call the ducks down so that we could count them. We might want to call them down so that we could shoot them. But anyway, whatever reasons are, these are the sort of calls that have been developed.

Now this is a rather horrible one really. This is one which is used to attract foxes.


Because this is an imitation of the cry of a wounded rodent, like a hare or a rabbit.


This is a rather good one actually.


Any offers?

A jay.

A jay. Would you agree with that? Well, no not with that.


Yeah, a jay. Well it works for jays I'm told. This one, let's see if I can do it.


Tawny owl?

Tawny owl, not quite.

A night lark?

No. I mean if you don't get it it's my fault, not your fault.



No, it says on the label here a plover. I think you perhaps need better people to blow it then me. This one -


Actually summons stoats.


And what else have I got? I've got for the last one -




Pigeon. Actually I'm supposed to have lessons into doing this and I'm not really doing it very well. I do beg your pardon.


But my point is that there are lots of ways in which we can actually learn the calls, learn the foreign languages of other animals. Now those are all pretty simple ones. Those are all different birds, or ways of calling foxes, which are fairly straightforward.

How much more interesting it would be if we could really speak the language of other animals? And not just say, come here, but learn a bit about what they are wanting to do, what they see of our world.

Now the best chance about doing that would be our closest relations, the apes. And we'll talk about that, talking to apes, next time. Thank you very much.

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