Polly want a video chat!
Researchers at Northeastern University, in collaboration with scientists from MIT and the University of Glasgow, taught a group of parrots across a range of species how to video call — and the results were astounding.
The domesticated birds were taught to use Facebook Messenger for the video sessions on tablets and smartphones, as researchers wondered if, given the choice, would the parrots call each other? The results were a resounding yes.
"Some strong social dynamics started appearing," said Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern University who helped train the birds.
The birds initiated calls at will and demonstrated that they understood a fellow parrot was on the other end. Some of the birds even acquired skills from the others, like new vocalizations and flying.
The types of sounds the birds made to each other mimicked vocalizations used in nature to say things like, "Hello, I’m here!" in parrot speak, according to Kleinberger.
The birds chose to stay engaged in the video calls for the maximum time alloted. Birds also showed they had favorite friends. In a preliminary study, Jennifer Cunha’s bird Ellie quickly became close with a California-based African grey parrot named Cookie.
"It’s been over a year and they still talk," said Cunha, who is a parrot behaviorist and Northeastern researcher.
Similar to human social dynamics, the most popular parrots were those who initiated the most calls.
While the parrots enjoyed the video chats, they also expressed excitement from the extra attention they were getting from their caretakers, with some even developing attachments with the people on the other end of the screen.
The researchers in this study were employed to both understand and enrich the lives of animals through computer interaction. But parrots in particular were chosen for this experiment due to their incredible cognitive abilities – which in species like cockatoos are equal to that of an elementary-aged child, according to the study.
While it may not mirror the companionship in the wild, the findings do suggest the video interactions can improve a bird’s quality of life, particularly for those already accustomed to a life in captivity.
In the case of two ill and elderly macaws who had rarely experienced another macaw in their life, the two formed a deep bond, often singing and dancing with one another, and would even call "Hi! Come here! Hello," when one would move out of the video frame.
"It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves," said llyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow. "It was really beautiful, those two birds, for me."
While the experiment delivered remarkable results, Kleinberger cautioned against trying this without proper training. The birds in the study followed a slow and steady process to learn the technology, with caretakers monitoring the parrots and their reactions. She said unmediated interactions could evoke fear or even damage to devices, as birds with strong beaks can shatter screens.
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