"Long before it's in the papers"
June 04, 2013


Your parrot isn’t just parroting, study suggests

June 1, 2011
Special to World Science  

Far from just mind­lessly re­peat­ing sounds they hear, pet par­rots may have a pur­pose for their vo­cal ex­pres­sions, in­clud­ing try­ing to try to track their own­ers’ loca­t­ion, a study has found.

While many own­ers will at­test that pet par­rots have a pur­pose in their talk­ing, the sub­ject was lit­tle stud­ied be­fore re­cent­ly. Cer­tainly par­rots have shown feats of in­tel­li­gence—one re­portedly formed a con­cept of the num­ber ze­ro—but most re­search on cap­tive par­rots has fo­cused on lab-reared birds’ re­sponses in question-and-answer tasks, sci­en­tists say. 

The new study in­stead an­a­lyzed the types of sounds a par­rot de­cides to make spon­ta­ne­ous­, and how these might vary de­pend­ing on so­cial con­text.

An African Grey parrot (photo by Dominic Morel)

Re­search­ers at the Un­ivers­ity of Geor­gia stud­ied hours of vid­e­o­tape of a home-raised, talk­ing Af­ri­can Grey par­rot named Cos­mo. They not­ed what they called sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in her talk­ing habits, and themes ad­dressed, de­pend­ing on which peo­ple were around her, what they were do­ing and how far away they were.

“Cos­mo’s vo­cal pro­duc­tion is far from ran­dom and is strongly in­flu­enced by the con­text cre­at­ed by varia­t­ions in her so­cial part­ner’s phys­i­cal pres­ence and will­ing­ness to re­cip­ro­cate in­ter­ac­tion,” wrote the re­search­ers, Er­in N. Colbert-White and col­leagues, in the May is­sue of the Jour­nal of Com­par­a­tive Psy­chol­o­gy.

The bird vo­calized al­most twice much when the own­er was in a neigh­bor­ing room than when the own­er was ei­ther out of the house or in the same room, they found.

“When she and her own­er were in sep­a­rate rooms,” they wrote, Cos­mo was “sig­nif­i­cantly more like­ly” to use ut­ter­ances in­volv­ing her spa­tial loca­t­ion or that of her own­er, Colbert-White and col­leagues wrote. These in­clud­ed “where are you” and “I’m here.” Some of these sounds might thus be an “adapta­t­ion of the wild par­rot con­tact cal­l,” they added—a type of call birds make when try­ing to de­ter­mine the loca­t­ion of out-of-sight flock mates.

More­o­ver, “when her own­er was in the room and will­ing to re­cip­ro­cate com­mu­nica­t­ion, the par­rot was more likely to use [sounds] that, in Eng­lish, would be con­sid­ered so­lic­ita­t­ions for vo­cal in­ter­ac­tion (e.g., ‘Cos­mo wan­na talk’),” they wrote.

“Any par­rot own­er can at­test to the strong so­cial bond­ing that oc­curs be­tween hu­man care­givers and their home-raised Af­ri­can Greys,” they not­ed. “Home-raised par­rots of­ten treat their hu­man care­givers like a con­spe­cif­ic [mem­ber of the same spe­cies] pair mate.”

The re­search­ers set up the vi­deocam­era near Cos­mo’s cage and al­lowed the own­er, a wom­an they would iden­ti­fy only as B.J., to tape one-hour ses­sions at her con­ven­ience. Twelve hours of record­ings were even­tu­ally used for anal­y­sis. An in­de­pend­ent ob­serv­er cat­e­go­rized the words and phrases ut­tered by the bird to avoid bi­as, the re­search­ers said.  “Lin­guis­tic anal­y­sis re­vealed that Cos­mo’s com­plete rep­er­toire com­prised 278 dif­fer­ent un­its that ranged in length from one to eight words or non­word sounds,” they noted.

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Far from just mindlessly repeating sounds, pet parrots may have a purpose for their vocal expressions, including trying to try to track their owners’ location, a study has found. Although parrots have shown remarkable feats of intelligence—one reportedly formed a concept of the number zero—most research on captive parrots has focused on lab-reared birds’ responses in question-and-answer tasks, scientists say. The new study instead analyzed the types of sounds a parrot decides to make spontaneously, and how these might vary depending on social context. Researchers at the University of Georgia studied hours of videotape of a home-raised, talking African Grey parrot named Cosmo. They noted what they called significant differences in her talking habits, and themes addressed, depending on which people were around her, what they were doing and how far away they were. “Cosmo’s vocal production is far from random and is strongly influenced by the context created by variations in her social partner’s physical presence and willingness to reciprocate interaction,” wrote the researchers, Erin N. Colbert-White and colleagues, in the May issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The bird vocalized almost twice much when the owner was in a neighboring room than when the owner was either out of the house or in the same room, they found. “When she and her owner were in separate rooms,” they wrote, Cosmo was “significantly more likely” to use utterances involving her spatial location or that of her owner, Colbert-White and colleagues wrote. These included “where are you” and “I’m here.” Some of these sounds might thus be an “adaptation of the wild parrot contact call,” they added—a type of call birds make when trying to determine the location of out-of-sight flock mates. Moreover, “when her owner was in the room and willing to reciprocate communication, the parrot was more likely to use [sounds] that, in English, would be considered solicitations for vocal interaction (e.g., ‘Cosmo wanna talk’),” they wrote. “Any parrot owner can attest to the strong social bonding that occurs between human caregivers and their home-raised African Greys,” they noted. “Home-raised parrots often treat their human caregivers like a conspecific [member of the same species] pair mate.” The researchers set up the video camera near Cosmo’s cage and allowed the owner, a woman they would identify only as B.J., to tape one-hour sessions at her own convenience. Twelve hours of recordings were eventually used for analysis. An independent observer categorized the words and phrases uttered by the bird to avoid bias, the researchers said. “Linguistic analysis revealed that Cosmo’s complete repertoire comprised 278 different units that ranged in length from one to eight words or nonword sounds,” they wrote.