September 20, 2023

Scientists were delighted to discover that parrots enjoyed video chatting with bird friends and were less lonely as a result

A white Goffin cockatoo during a video call.

A Goffin’s cockatoo, one of the birds in the study, calling a bird friend.Matthew Modoono/Northeast University

  • Researchers trained parrots to call out certain birds. Later, the parrots chose whom to call.

  • The researchers were delighted when the parrots communicated with each other through the screen.

  • Scientists had to train bird parents extensively for this exercise. Not just anyone should try it.

Researchers have found that parrots are just like us when it comes to video chatting with friends.

The authors of a new study found that virtual quality time with bird friends seemed to reduce signs of loneliness in parrots and improve their lives overall.

The researchers also told Insider that they were thrilled when the parrots interacted with each other on both ends of the call by tapping the screen and doing activities together, such as preening. A sign that the birds were attached to each other.

The results of the study are important for the many parrots that live alone with their humans and may not have their high social needs met.

That’s because a lack of socialization for birds in the parrot family — which includes cockatoos, cockatiels, macaws, African grays, lovebirds, budgerigars and more — can lead to harmful behaviors like plucking or destroying their feathers, pacing and rocking, aggression or excessive to sleep.

Why parrots need so much socialization

“I think captive birds have been misunderstood and mischaracterized for years,” said Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behavior expert, researcher at Northeastern University and one of the study’s authors.

Cunha added that while people often think of them as ornamental, parrots are also incredibly social and intelligent animals.

For example, in the wild, parrots generally live in complex social environments, said Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern University of computer science and music, and another author of the study.

They tend to mate within a larger flock of parrots and do most things, such as feeding, preening, sleeping, traveling and raising their young within this social group, Kleinberger and Cunha said.

So when these birds live alone as pets with minimal social interaction, they have little outlet for much of their cognitive abilities.

A colorful red, green, yellow and blue macaw parrot on a video call.

A macaw from the study greets a friend.Kleinberger, et al.

Understimulated parrots can easily become bored, frustrated and lonely. Cunha said some countries have even made it illegal to keep just one parrot because of their complex social needs.

The ability to video call other parrots could give birds a chance to access the socialization and species identity they have in the wild, Cunha said.

How the study worked

First, researchers recruited 18 parrots and their caretakers through Parrot Kindergarten – a coaching program for parrots and their caretakers that Cunha administers.

They then had a training phase where parrots learned to select another bird’s photo on a tablet to initiate a call on Facebook Messenger — which the parrots successfully did in just a few weeks.

A bird ringing a bell.

A black-headed caique ringing the bell to call.Kleinberger, et al.

Then parrots would ring a bell when they wanted to call. When their keeper offered the tablet, they touched the picture of the bird they wanted to chat with.

Initially, the birds were given treats for ringing the bell and selecting a bird friend, but after the training period, they were no longer given treats. The researchers were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the birds picked up the method of voluntarily calling each other.

Researchers were also pleased to see how the parrots engaged in the video calls by following the birds on the other side of the screen, both visually and by touching the tablet directly.

Many birds mirrored behaviors they saw their mates do, such as foraging, preening and flying.

“During the study, we observed a diversity of social behaviors, from preening and sleeping together on screen to vocalizing,” Kleinberger said.

A white Quaker parrot on a video call next to his cage.

A Quaker parrot choosing a friend to call.Kleinberger, et al.

What’s more, the more calls a parrot received, the more they wanted to call others, said Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, a computer science lecturer at the University of Glasgow and co-author of the study.

“They evolved favorite parrots to call, and most parrots would engage with the system for as long as possible,” Hirskyj-Douglas said.

Parrots could call twice a day, with each call lasting no more than five minutes. The researchers set this time limit for safety and ethical reasons and to minimize the time commitment for healthcare providers.

Kleinberger added that the parrots’ sheer number of calls — 147 in all — seemed to support their interest and commitment to the bird on the other side of the screen.

Video chats had many benefits for parrots

All of the parrot caretakers involved said their bird had a positive experience with video calls, the study said.

Some keepers said their birds responded to their video friends in the same way they would to real people or birds. One keeper said their bird even said “Come back!” when the other bird walked out of view.

A bird preening itself during a video call.

Birds preening at the same time during a video call.Kleinberger, et al.

All but one caretaker said they believed their parrot got more out of the video chat than simple fun. For example, a parrot seemed to gain confidence and began to fly more. Others seemed calmer overall, the study said.

Video calling doesn’t work for every parrot

The researchers extensively trained the parrot handlers participating in the study, Cunha said.

Video calling itself should be conducted in a sensitive, ethical manner to introduce the technology slowly and ensure there are no fear responses, Hirskyj-Douglas added.

For example, parrot keepers learned to recognize signs of stress during the video calls and encourage them to help reduce any anxiety associated with the new experience.

Caretakers would also end the call if their bird seemed uncomfortable or walked away from the call zone, Hirskyj-Douglas said. That way, the parrots learned that they could just walk away if they didn’t want any interaction.

Forced socialization is not in a parrot’s best interest. The researchers released three parrots from the study early on because these birds didn’t seem to like the calls at all.

But most parrots apparently enjoyed the experience and chose to call many other birds.

The study authors recognize the need for additional research, as this study is the first to investigate video calling for parrots. That said, they believe video calling could become an important way to help isolated parrots build and maintain important connections with other members of their species — just as they do for humans.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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