"The article is based on an elementary mathematical error," said Chomsky, professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They are overlooking the fact that there are many intermediate systems that are ignored in mathematical linguistics because their properties are empirically irrelevant.I wonder, as I did with the counting explanation, whether a simple short-term memory explanation (and one based on outdated work, apparently, though I suspect Chomsky merely mentioned Miller, and the reporter ran with it) could account for the generalization. Maybe it could, but to do so, I think you'd still have to say something about pattern recognition. The question, ultimately, is whether the pattern they're pattern recognition has anything to do with context-free insertion (self-embedding, in the paper).
"Based on other work done 50 years ago by George Miller, Chomsky thinks further research would show that the birds are not grasping linguistics in the way the new study concludes. "It has nothing remotely to do with language; probably just with short-term memory," Chomsky told LiveScience.
The ability for the starlings to sort through the patterns may also just be a benefit of natural selection, a process responsible for the origin of new species and the adaptation of organisms to their environments, as proposed by Charles Darwin.
"That aside, if someone could show that other animals had the basic property of human language, it would be of very little interest to the biology of language, but would be a puzzle for general biology," Chomsky said. "It's expected that if a species has some ability that has real selectional advantage, it will use it."
Also, I feel a little bit better about my post now that I've seen Chomsky express a similar conclusion to mine: the ability, if it exists, didn't evolve in birds (or, in all likelihood, any other nonhuman species) for linguistic purposes, so if the starlings really do recognize context-free recursion, the question is, what do they use that ability for?