Do Wild Parrots have Names?
Parrots are popular pets. Those who love parrots are often attracted to them because they are highly intelligent creatures and possess the ability to mimic. There are few things more fascinating than a talking bird. But whilst parrot’s ability to speak is well-known, little is understood about how they vocalise and learn to mimic in the wild.
Signature Contact Calls
Researchers have established that parrots do mimic their own species and that they have signature contact calls, in other words, names. They are able to voice their own name and address other parrots by name. What hasn’t been looked at, until recently, is how the birds acquire those names. Are they given them by their parents like humans, do they evolve names for themselves or are their names encoded in their genes?
Carl Berg, a PHD student at Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA decided to see if he could unravel this mystery. He conducted research into the behaviour of the green rump parrotlet, a small species from Venezuela.
Berg created an experiment in which he monitored two parrotlet nests. He had taken the eggs from these nests and swapped them. He figured that if the baby birds developed signature contact calls which were similar to their adoptive parents, it could be assumed that these names were learned. But if the birds demonstrated calls similar to their biological parents, the names must be encoded in their genes.
The study was conducted over a period of two months during which time Berg watched many hours of footage taken by cameras in the nests. The chicks were exposed to the calls between their adoptive parents as they returned to the nest after searching for food. After just two weeks there was evidence that the chicks could recognise their parents’ calls. Sleeping chicks would become active when their parents arrived outside the nests and began calling.
Just a few days later, the chicks began vocalising what would become their own signature contact calls. Three weeks later, when they were ready to fledge, the youngsters each possessed their own call or name. Carl Berg recorded these sounds and used sophisticated software to compare the calls to the those of the parents.
He discovered that the signature calls of the young birds closely resembled those of their adoptive parents. In other words, the parrots had learned their names in the nest.
This study has produced the first evidence that parrots learn to mimic in the wild in the same way that they do in our homes. Berg’s work demonstrates that parrots exhibit a complex system of communication which could be the most similar to our own in the animal kingdom.
Parrots do have names! It would be interesting to see if pet parrots can learn the names of their owners and understand what those names mean rather than simply mimicking them.