Baby Parrots Learn Their Names From Their Parents

By Veronique Greenwood | July 13, 2011 1:19 pm

Parrot communication in the wild from Karl Berg on Vimeo.

What’s the News: Parrots, those irrepressible mimics of the animal world, are some of the few creatures known to have individual names: each bird has its own signature call that others use when addressing it and that the bird uses itself in avian “conversation.” Scientists have long wondered where these calls come from. Now, a new study of wild parrots shows that even before chicks can “talk,” their parents have provided them with a moniker, which they will tweak and then use throughout their lives.

How the Heck:

  • While scientists have long known that parrots use signature calls and watched captive birds do it, they wanted to see how wild birds get names: are they biologically innate, chosen by each parrot itself, or somehow assigned by Mom and Dad?
  • To study this, the researchers set up video cameras in 16 green-rumped parrotlet nests in Venezuela, part of a large wild population that has been living since 1987 in nesting tubes provided by scientists.
  • To probe the question of whether calls were innate, they shuffled eggs around so that half the population was raising chicks not genetically related to them. Then they recorded all the calls made by the parents before the chicks were of squawking age and all the calls made by the chicks once they began to call.
  • What they found was that parents started making signature calls when the chicks were very young, providing a template that the chicks imitated and added their own flourishes to in order to create their names. The templates were learned, not innate: Chicks’ names were more similar to the names of the parents that raised them than to their biological parents’.

What’s the Context:

  • Dolphins and humans are, so far, the only other members of this select club of animals who use names for individuals. Scientists think this ability is related to the intensely social lives of all three of these creatures. In the case of parrots, whose flocks often split up and join with other groups, having one’s own name and being able to imitate the names of other birds could be a helpful tool when forming new flocks.

The Future Holds: The researchers point out that this mode of learning names is reminiscent of how human infants pick up their names, meaning that parrots could provide a model for how human speech arises. And an interesting corollary, as birds’ names are similar to those of their parents and siblings, is that birds’ relationships might be inferred from their calls. A chance, perhaps, to suss out the bird equivalent of surnames?

Reference: Berg, et al. Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot. Published online before print July 13, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0932 Proc. R. Soc. B

(via ScienceNOW, Nature News)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • Michelle

    “parrots could provide a model for how human speech arises” What a ridiculous statement. All you have to do is observe humans to figure out how human speech arises. The value of this research is to learn about how certain animals communicate, and how complex their thinking processes are. There are human parallels which help us understand them better. I doubt we can extrapolate from their communication something that we can so readily observe in ourselves.

  • I speak my way

    It is hardly ridiculous to look to another species to model human mechanisms. When you have two instances you can examine them for contrasts and consistencies. As the parrot’s mode of speech is more simplistic and not nearly as constrained by cultural pressures as the established human culture is, this is a very useful method. Notice that among humans there are social trends for choosing names that do vary over time and between cultural groups. An additional example can provide very useful information. Consider similar statements about the potential to learn from other the weather and (bio)chemical activity of other planets and moons.

  • amphiox

    What a ridiculous statement. All you have to do is observe humans to figure out how human speech arises.

    Not ridiculous at all. The humans you have to observe to really figure out how human speech arose are ancient humans, but sadly, those dudes are in no position to be observed speaking any more.

  • Eric

    I think what Michelle is missing is that before now, we knew of only mammals that had this development.
    The question now is whether this development occurred prior to the divergence between mammals and birds, or whether it developed independently in both class of animals.

  • David

    The answer to Eric’s question is quite obviously that they developed independently. For example, our immediate ancestors can’t do it.

    I’d like to propose a fourth species for the list: Emperor penguins. They have unique calls which allow parents and offspring to identify each other in the mob. I’m not sure if this is exactly the same as a name but it certainly is close.

  • Calo

    Michelle… nothing about us is really “self-made.” Rather, it inter-dependently arose or arises… so we try to trace it back to its beginnings as best as we can.

    Because of evolution, however, other species were first in experiencing anything we may experience. Meaning, ours are different modes, or textures, of the same stuff that was there before… and, in that sense, there is nothing about us that cannot also be found elsewhere, in other species. We have just chosen to forget or ignore that other species have had it all along.

    In terms of speech, the same thing applies. Finding how it occurs without the cultural, political, and religious baggage, as “I speak my way” pointed out above, is filtering the stuff to where it can be looked at better, where it’s “purer,” where it hasn’t been tampered with…

    Eric and David, along those lines, some form of speech had to be there even before the split between mammals and birds.

  • missy

    anyone interested in neuroscience would see the value of comparison. by looking at the way organized communication arises and differs in species, we may gain better understanding of underlying mechanisms in the brain, and there are very few other species with this trait.

  • amphiox

    The LCA of mammals and birds was the ur-amniote. If this form of “speech” (ie individual labels) existed in the LCA, then it would have been inherited by all the other descendents of the LCA, which includes basically every single tetrapod on the planet that is not an amphibian (every lizard, snake, crocodilian, all the extinct pelycosaurs, therapsids, cynodonts, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mosasaurs, etc), and we should expect that the majority of all these species would possess the ability.

    It is far more parsimonious to assume that the ability evolved separately and independently in birds and mammals than to assume it was inherited from the LCA and independently lost in all those other lineages.

  • Michelle

    I think the problem here is the use of the present tense…how human speech ARISES. Probably what was meant was how human speech AROSE. The statement then becomes more meaningful.

  • Crow

    Saying that an idea is “ridiculous” is a great way to shut down interaction. There’s no better way to squelch creativity than to ridicule it. I far prefer a response more along the lines of “I don’t see how that might be helpful. Can you explain a bit more?”

  • Michelle

    Obviously it does not squelch interaction, because look at the responses and the scoldings I got!

  • b j

    Sperm whales use ‘names’ as identifiers. Recently discovered.

  • amphiox

    Obviously it does not squelch interaction, because look at the responses and the scoldings I got!

    Context matters. On an internet blog, you tend to get saved by SIWOTI syndrome, no matter how undiplomatic you are (intentional or not)!

    In a classroom or other similar venue, perhaps not so much.

  • Jockaira

    Amphiox said: “It is far more parsimonious to assume that the ability evolved separately and independently in birds and mammals than to assume it was inherited from the LCA and independently lost in all those other lineages.”

    Wouldn’t it be more parsimonious that the ability evolved one time and in descendent species, simply lost, degraded, not manifested, or enhanced? This ability might have been there for quite some time, but because of lack of vocal apparatus or other factors not used until the time and physiognomy developed.

    In other words, the basic brain “circuitry” may have been present since very ancient times, but used for other purposes until the development of vocal communication, then subsumed for a more convenient and useful purpose.

  • Angeles

    Fascinating, indeed! Congratulations to the author.

  • princess parrots

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all of us you actually recognise what you are speaking about! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally talk over with my website =). We can have a hyperlink trade agreement between us

  • Matt B.

    There’s a difference between “how human speech arises”, which sounds like a present-day individual act, and “how human speech arose”, which was a one-time species act.


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