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Mockingjay Hybrid?

May 10, 2012

Could a mockingjay hybrid really work? That’s what I was asked by the NYT for a piece about Suzanne Collins’s intriguing YA adventure.

In Hunger Games, the mockingjay is the product of accidental hybridization of engineered jabberjays, avian informer-drones, with wild mockingbirds. Mockingbirds are real birds capable of extraordinary variety of sound, imitating all kinds of insect, animal and machine sounds as well as human voices. I recommend the Northern Mockingbird link for some lovely recordings.

And all kinds of parrots talk, both in captivity and in the wild. Amazingly, wild parrots in Australia are picking up human words from birds escaped from captivity.

Can different bird species hybridize? Of course it’s possible, even with different chromosome numbers. In my science fiction I’ve often depicted the hypothetical result of human-gorilla hybrids. The role of chromosome number in hybridization is a fascinating story, perhaps for another post some time.

But can parrots actually use “talk” to communicate meaning? This article thoughtfully discusses the question. It seems clear that some birds learn to use “talk” to elicit social responses from humans, although it’s not clear that they understand the meanings of vocabulary in the same way we do. Perhaps we should really ask, can humans communicate by the language of a bird.

2 Comments
  1. heteromeles permalink
    May 11, 2012 11:26 am

    Since jays and mockingbirds are in different families, I think we’re more talking about lemurs and humans hybridizing, rather than humans and gorillas–not that possible, unless the jabberjay was a mockingbird to begin with.

    On a slightly more interesting note, it’s not clear to me whether mockingbirds actually intend meaning with songs. An example: I’ve heard both steller’s jays and starlings mimic red-tailed hawks, and the starling did it at me when I tried to chase it out of an attic. That kind of mimicry has a bit of thought behind it, in that they’re mimicking the sound of a predator to frighten me off and/or mess with me.

    A mockingbird, conversely, uses sampled sounds as part of its mating display, and beyond using the sounds as a demonstration of its fitness, it’s unclear whether the mockingbird attaches meaning to the sounds. I’ve been threatened by a number of mockingbirds, usually when I get near their chicks, but I’ve never heard a mockingbird give a red-tailed hawk’s call when they are threatening me, even though it’s a common part of their repertoire.

  2. heteromeles permalink
    May 11, 2012 1:40 pm

    Just thinking evil thoughts, I’m personally less worried about a jabberjay, because cheap voice recorders are ubiquitous, and microdrones are getting more common by the day. Instead, I’m more worried about the DEA outlawing yogurt makers due to people hacking lactobacillus to produce THC, cocaine, ephedrine, or any similar illegal and profitable chemical (ephedrine is a precursor to methamphetamine, of course).

    I don’t know enough about the biochemistry of any of these molecules to know whether a bacteria can be hacked to produce them, but if they can, I expect it will be done, just to flout our current drug control rules. Given the way the US deals with security, I expect the government to go after the problem by outlawing homemade yogurt.

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