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Why do parrots talk? For some, mimicking talent may be for addressing individuals

Nov. 25, 2012
Courtesy of Public Library of Science 
and World Science staff

Though a par­rot might not un­der­stand any words it’s say­ing to­ward you, there’s a good chance its aim is to ad­dress you in­di­vid­u­ally, new re­search sug­gests.

A study in­di­cates that at least some par­rots' tal­ent for mim­ick­ing sounds, which un­der­lies their “talk­ing” skill, func­tions in na­ture to let them com­mu­ni­cate with in­di­vid­ual par­rots they en­coun­ter.

An orange-front­ed con­ure. (Cre­dit: Thor­sten Bal­sby)


Thorsten Balsby of the Uni­vers­ity of Aar­hus, Den­mark and col­leagues from the Uni­vers­ity of Co­pen­ha­gen stud­ied one par­rot spe­cies, the orange-fronted con­ure.

In the wild, these birds live in dy­nam­ic flocks where in­di­vid­uals flit in and out, so each par­rot en­coun­ters many dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­uals dai­ly, the re­search­ers not­ed. Each bird al­so has its own un­ique call. 

Both in the wild and in the re­searchers’ ex­pe­ri­ments, par­rots that heard an imita­t­ion of their own calls re­sponded more often and faster to the call­ing in­di­vid­ual than par­rots that didn’t hear this imita­t­ion, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists.

Based on these ob­serva­t­ions, they sug­gest that the par­rots may have evolved their abil­i­ties as mim­ics so they could start “con­versa­t­ion” with a spe­cif­ic in­di­vid­ual by mim­ick­ing their call. The find­ings were pub­lished Nov. 21 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

“Given that orange-fronted con­ures fre­quently com­mu­ni­cate with­in large com­mu­nica­t­ion net­works with many po­ten­tial re­ceivers, which may be from sev­er­al dif­fer­ent flocks, the abil­ity to se­lec­tively ad­dress spe­cif­ic in­di­vid­uals may be of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance” to them, the sci­en­tists wrote.

“Many spe­cies of par­rots live part of their lives in so­cial flocks and vo­cal imita­t­ion in par­rots may, there­fore, have evolved, to en­a­ble ad­dressing of spe­cif­ic in­di­vid­uals in com­mu­nica­t­ion net­works with high turnovers in­volv­ing many dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­uals.”

Balsby and col­leagues al­so not­ed that a few an­i­mals, in­clud­ing dol­phins and spec­ta­cled par­rotlets, have been found to pos­sibly “la­bel” or “name” com­pan­ions us­ing signa­ture calls. How­ev­er, such a skill might have lim­it­ed val­ue in the con­ures' so­cial sys­tem be­cause these birds in­ter­act with too many dif­fer­ent in­di­vid­uals, in­clud­ing strangers, the sci­en­tists pro­posed. In con­trast, for the con­ures, vo­cal imita­t­ion af­fords a flex­i­bil­ity that “al­lows for the ad­dressing of spe­cif­ic in­di­vid­uals with which the ad­dressor has only a lim­it­ed knowl­edge,” they ar­gued.

They added that “the hunter-gather life style of early hu­mans” may have had some si­m­i­lar­i­ties with the shape-shifting so­cial struc­ture of the con­ures, sug­gesting one pos­sible rea­son why soph­is­t­icated com­mu­nica­t­ion evolved in both spe­cies.


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Though a parrot might not understand any words it might be saying to you, there's a good chance its purpose is to address you individually, new research suggests. A study indicates that at least some parrots' talent for mimicking sounds, which underlies their “talking“ skill, functions in nature to let them communicate with individual parrots they encounter. Thorsten Balsby of the University of Aarhus, Denmark and colleagues from the University of Copenhagen studied one parrot species, the orange-fronted conure. In the wild, these birds live in dynamic flocks where individuals flit in and out, so each parrot encounters many different individuals daily, the researchers noted. Each bird also has its own unique call. Both in the wild and in the researcher's experiments, parrots that heard an imitation of their own calls responded more frequently and faster to the calling individual than parrots that did not hear this imitation, according to the scientists. Based on these observations, they suggest that the parrots may have evolved their abilities as mimics so they could start “conversation“ with a specific individual by mimicking their call. The findings were published November 21 in the research journal PLoS One. “Given that orange-fronted conures frequently communicate within large communication networks with many potential receivers, which may be from several different flocks, the ability to selectively address specific individuals may be of particular importance“ to them, the scientists wrote. “Many species of parrots live part of their lives in social flocks and vocal imitation in parrots may, therefore, have evolved, to enable addressing of specific individuals in communication networks with high turnovers involving many different individuals.“ Balsby and colleagues also noted that a few animals, including dolphins and spectacled parrotlets, have been found to possibly “label“ or “name“ companions using signature calls. However, such a skill might have limited value in the conures' social system because these birds interact with too many different individuals, including strangers, the scientists proposed. In contrast, for the conures, vocal imitation affords a flexibility that “allows for the addressing of specific individuals with which the addressor has only a limited knowledge,“ they argued. They added that “the hunter-gather life style of early humans“ may have had some similarities with the shape-shifting social structure of the conures, suggesting one possible reason why sophisticated communication evolved in both species.