Parrot mimics for bird-to-bird conversation

By Natalie Muller 6 December 2012
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Parrots in Costa Rica mimic each other’s distinct calls to communicate, study finds.

PARROTS IN CAPTIVITY ARE known masters of mimicry, but new research suggests some species of parrot use impersonation to converse with specific birds in the wild.

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and the University of Aarhus in Denmark studied the vocal behaviour of the orange-fronted conure (Aratinga canicularis), a parrot species found in the forests of Costa Rica.

Researchers were able to identify distinct “contact calls” for each individual parrot. However the study, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, showed birds that heard their call mimicked through a recording responded faster than those who hadn’t been imitated.

According to Dr Thorsten Balsby from the University of Aarhus, these findings suggest parrots may have developed their gift for mimicry to allow them to single out individuals they wish to communicate with.

Imitation allows parrots to “talk”

“Imitation gives the parrot an effective communication channel in a network where you have a huge amount of potential receivers,” says Thorsten.

“By mimicking a contact call of another individual you can address your communication to this particular individual.”

Orange-fronted conures live in large, dynamic “fission-fusion” flocks, where individuals flit in and out. When flocks meet, there can be dozens of birds interacting at the same time while contact calls are exchanged.

Thorsten argues that parrots have developed the ability to communicate in this noisy, constantly-changing environment. “Our research suggests that the fact the parrots have this amazing ability to imitate… is probably a result of the social dynamics and the social system that they have,” he says.

Researchers are yet to work out why the birds converse with each other in this way. One theory is that the mimicking calls are part of a negotiation about whether flocks should join together, or who should lead the fused flock.

Australian galahs mimic to communicate

Dr Judith Scarl, a conservation biologist who specialises in Australian galahs, says it is likely Australian birds are capable of these behaviours. “Many parrot species have similar social systems, including a lot of the Australian cockatoos,” she explains.

Judith’s work in south-eastern Australia found that wild galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla), like conures, could morph their contact calls on the spot to match calls played to them in a recording.

“That’s particularly interesting because galahs and orange-fronted conures are in two separate families of parrots, and so we’re talking about evolutionary divergence millions of years ago,” she says.

Judith adds that it isn’t clear whether galahs mimic to make contact with a specific bird. “We suspect that it goes beyond just addressing and into some sort of negotiation… to indicate that they want to join the flock, or to indicate that they are willing to be subordinate.”

Studies have shown that captive parrot species including Australian budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulates) are capable of matching their contact calls to those of other individuals. However this usually happens over a few weeks, not in a single interaction, and it’s unknown whether they would replicate this behaviour in the wild.