Parrots Taught to FaceTime Each Other Become Less Lonely, a New Study Shows

It’s telling that the avian par­tic­i­pants in a recent study where­in pet par­rots, assist­ed by their own­ers, learned to make video calls to oth­ers of their kind were recruit­ed from the online edu­ca­tion­al forum Par­rot Kinder­garten.

In the above footage, the humans’ hope­ful, high-pitched cajol­ing, as they encour­age their birds to inter­act with a new “friend”, car­ries a strong whiff of those Mom­my and Me class­es where a dozen or so adults sit cross­legged in a cir­cle, shak­ing tam­bourines and bright­ly war­bling “Twin­kle, Twin­kle, Lit­tle Star,” while an equal num­ber of tod­dlers wan­der around, marked­ly less invest­ed in the pro­ceed­ings.

Though, real­ly, who am I to judge? I don’t have a par­rot, and it’s been over two decades since my youngest child required parental inter­fer­ence to foment social inter­ac­tion…

Eigh­teen pet par­rots enrolled in the study, hang­ing out with one anoth­er dur­ing self-ini­ti­at­ed video chats, to see how and if such inter­ac­tions might improve their qual­i­ty of life.

No one was forced to make a call if they weren’t feel­ing it, or to remain on the line after their inter­est flagged.

I’m hunch­ing the aver­age parrot’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy clocks in far south of the aver­age Amer­i­can toddler’s, which may explain why they com­plet­ed a mere 147 calls over the course of two months (and 1000 hours of com­bined footage.)

That said, I can eas­i­ly imag­ine a sce­nario in which the aver­age human tod­dler, hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly got­ten their beak, excuse me, hands on a touch­screen tablet, los­es all inter­est in Face­Tim­ing with a peer, pre­fer­ring the soli­tary plea­sures of Bal­loon Pop or Peek-a-Zoo.

Typ­i­cal­ly, human tod­dlers have more oppor­tu­ni­ties for “inter­species eth­i­cal enrich­ment” than crea­tures whose lives are pri­mar­i­ly spent in a cage. As the authors of the study note, “over 20 mil­lion par­rots are kept as pets in the US, often lack­ing appro­pri­ate stim­uli to meet their high social, cog­ni­tive, and emo­tion­al needs.”

The par­rot par­tic­i­pants may not have thrown them­selves into the pro­ceed­ings with the vig­or of Bye Bye Birdie’s teenaged tele­phone cho­rus, but all placed calls, the major­i­ty exhib­it­ed “high moti­va­tion and inten­tion­al­i­ty”, and their humans indi­cat­ed that they would glad­ly con­tin­ue to facil­i­tate this social exper­i­ment.

The human con­tri­bu­tion is not incon­sid­er­able here. It took vast amounts of time and patience to ori­ent the birds to the sys­tem, and care­ful mon­i­tor­ing to make sure calls didn’t run off the rails. Noth­ing like hav­ing your iPad screen smashed by a par­rot who’s got beef in an online forum…

Sev­er­al legit friend­ships formed over the course of the exper­i­ment — a Goffin’s cock­a­too and an African grey who made each other’s vir­tu­al acquain­tance dur­ing the pilot study were still chat­ting, a year after they met.

Data col­lect­ed in the field shows that the num­ber and dura­tion of out­go­ing calls were close­ly tied to the num­ber and dura­tion of incom­ing calls. The most pop­u­lar birdies did not take their con­nec­tions for grant­ed.

It’s a find­ing humans would do well to absorb if we are to com­bat feel­ings of iso­la­tion from with­in our own species.

Read Birds of a Feath­er Video-Flock Togeth­er: Design and Eval­u­a­tion of an Agency-Based Par­rot-to-Par­rot Video-Call­ing Sys­tem for Inter­species Eth­i­cal Enrich­ment here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

What Kind of Bird Is That?: A Free App From Cor­nell Will Give You the Answer

Explore an Inter­ac­tive Ver­sion of The Wall of Birds, a 2,500 Square-Foot Mur­al That Doc­u­ments the Evo­lu­tion of Birds Over 375 Mil­lion Years

Cor­nell Launch­es Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929

Par­rot Sings AC/DCs “Whole Lot­ta Rosie”

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.


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