Researchers Trained Parrots to Video Call Their Bird Friends

Bird brain may be a compliment since parrots are tapping into technology to foster their friendships. Parrots are chatting through devices thanks to the researchers at Northeastern University, who worked alongside scientists from MIT and the University of Glasgow. The experts conducted a study to explore how domesticated birds can be trained to communicate with each other on tablets and smartphones.

The findings indicated that video calls could mimic their interactions in the wild, leading to better behavior in the home and promoting well-being.

Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern; Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist and Northeastern researcher; and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow, were fascinated with studying chatty parrots and how devices can enhance their communication. The three researchers taught a group of parrots and their caregivers how to use their devices to video-call each other on Facebook Messenger.

The researchers tested the birds over a three-month time span to see if they would call each other to chat. Turns out, the parrots happily passed the time with their fellow bird companions over the devices.

The birds were clever in realizing that another real bird was on the line and the caregivers were pleased with the interactions since they picked up skills from their exchanges. They picked up new vocalizations and started flying during the calls. “She came alive during the calls,” reported a caregiver.

The birds continued to chat for the maximum time and they felt a bond with each other. Cunha’s bird Ellie, a Goffin’s cockatoo, became inseparable from a California-based African grey named Cookie. “It’s been over a year and they still talk,” Cunha said.

As for the specific dialogues, they mimicked the call-and-response nature that is traditionally heard in the wild.

Other conclusions were made such as the most popular parrots were the ones who initiated the most calls, which is similar to the way people interact. The animals displayed different tendencies; some parrots soaked up the extra attention they were getting from their humans, while others formed connections with people on the other side of the screen.

For bird owners, don’t pass your devices to the pets and stand back for the parrot to blow you away with the speech. The participant parrots had experienced handlers who put the time and effort to train them to converse with each other. It’s not an innate bird skill to conduct a Zoom meeting.

Although this study comes with its warnings, video calls were proven to increase a domesticated parrot’s quality of life. Kleinberger said: “We’re not saying you can make them as happy as they would be in the wild,” she said. “We’re trying to serve those who are already [in captivity].”

“It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves,” Hirskyj-Douglas said. “It was really beautiful, those two birds, for me.”

Boredom may be a thing of the past for these bird brains. The parrots in the study were blessed with new shiny toys, where they can freely gossip about their captive lives.