Researchers from Northeastern University, in partnership with scientists from MIT and the University of Glasgow, conducted a study to examine the effects of teaching domesticated birds how to communicate with each other through tablets and smartphones.
As video chat applications like Zoom and FaceTime become increasingly popular, it appears that parrots are also picking up on this trend.
According to a recent study by these researchers, teaching parrots to use video calls on tablets and smartphones could improve their behavior and well-being in domestic environments.
The research team chose parrots because of their exceptional intelligence, visual abilities, and vocalization skills, which they use to communicate with their flock-mates in the wild.
The study involved teaching a group of parrots across different species and their caregivers to video-call each other on Facebook Messenger.
Over three months, the researchers observed that the birds actively used their newfound ability to communicate, leading to the development of strong social dynamics.
“Some strong social dynamics started appearing,” Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern says.
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The study showed that parrots not only enjoyed making video calls but also seemed to comprehend that another parrot was on the other end, leading to positive experiences for them.
Caretakers reported that their birds learned new skills, such as foraging and vocalizations, and even exhibited more lively behavior during the calls. The parrots initiated calls freely, and they engaged in call-and-response vocalizations that mimic those in the wild.
Interestingly, the birds engaged in most of the calls for the maximum allowed time and developed strong preferences.
For instance, a Goffin’s cockatoo named Ellie became good friends with a California-based African grey named Cookie, and they still communicate more than a year later.
“It’s been over a year and they still talk,” Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist, and Northeastern-affiliated researcher says.
While the findings indicate that video calls can improve a pet parrot’s quality of life, the researchers caution that the technology should be introduced slowly and carefully monitored to avoid fear, aggression, or property damage. Overall, the study suggests that using video calls to approximate wild bird communication can enhance parrots’ behavior and well-being in their owners’ homes.
“We’re not saying you can make them as happy as they would be in the wild,” Kleinberger says. “We’re trying to serve those who are already [in captivity].”
The study revealed that video calls could benefit parrots who are unable to interact physically with other birds due to various reasons, such as disease.
For instance, two elderly male macaws suffering from illness were paired together and formed a deep bond despite having barely seen another macaw in their lives.
They danced and sang together enthusiastically through the screen and called out to each other whenever one moved out of the video frame.
“It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves,” says Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow. “It was really beautiful, those two birds, for me.”
Overall, the study suggests that teaching parrots to make video calls on tablets and smartphones can have a positive impact on their behavior and well-being in domestic environments. The study highlights the cognitive complexity of parrots and their ability to express themselves.