It has already been confirmed that monkeys, mice and other mammals can recognise different languages but this is the first time that birds have been found to possess the ability, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported.

A research team exposed Java Sparrows to English and Chinese translations recorded by exchange students of two well-known Japanese novels, The Tale of Genji and Natsume Soseki's I Am a Cat.

A bird sitting on a perch first listened to the English version and was only allowed to eat afterward.

Then the researchers played English and Chinese recordings randomly and only allowed the bird to eat after hopping onto the perch with the English.

The birds correctly identified the English recording 75% of the time.

The same results were achieved with another two birds that were permitted to eat only when Chinese was played.

Intonation, pronunciation

"Humans are able to distinguish between languages, even ones they don't know, from the intonation and pronunciation, and it seems that paddy birds have the same ability"

Shigeru Watanabe,
Keio University experimental
psychology professor

Keio University experimental psychology professor Shigeru Watanabe, who led the research, said: "Humans are able to distinguish between languages, even ones they don't know, from the intonation and pronunciation, and it seems that paddy birds have the same ability.

"If we study common traits in brain structure, this may shed light on the mechanisms of speech recognition," Watanabe was quoted as saying by the Mainichi Shimbun.

Watanabe said paddy birds like the Java Sparrow and parakeets, which are skilled vocally, learn sounds unique to their species after becoming adults, suggesting that they have a high ability to distinguish between sounds.

The researchers did not use Japanese because it was the language the birds normally listened to, the newspaper said.