Did you know that parrots enjoy video-calling?

“Hi! Come here! Hello!”

Though this might seem a bit of a rude way to start a conversation to us, this opener to a video call by a greenwing macaw did not bother the receiver – a ruby macaw. The two parrots called each other whenever possible and stayed engaged with the calls: they talked to each other, danced and sang together and preened at the same time. And if one walked off-screen the other called for it to come back.

These two macaws were not the only birds that regularly called each other in a recent study on the viability and value of video-calling for parrots.

Life of a pet parrot

In nature, most parrots are highly social and live bonded in pairs within large flocks. However, pet parrots are often kept alone and therefore lack companionship and species-specific socialisation. Additionally, parrots have complex cognitive and behavioural needs that are not easily fulfilled in the confinement of a cage or even a whole house (imagine life in what is effectively a never-ending lockdown). This may lead to behavioural problems – like excessive vocalisation or even feather plucking and self-mutilation. And while environmental enrichment like puzzle feeders might be helpful, they can’t replace socialisation with other parrots.

On the other hand, human-forced socialisation can lead to aggression and injuries and any social gatherings of parrots and their owners bring a large risk of spreading serious diseases.

Therefore, video-calling technology could potentially allow for a form of bird-controlled socialisation and even be a first step in the process of real-life pairing.

Ring a bell to ring your friend

18 parrots of different species (divided into groups of 2 or 3) and their owners participated in the study from their own homes.

In the first phase, the parrots were taught that if they rang a bell and touched a photo of another bird on a screen, the call with that bird would start. In this phase, the birds also met for the first time.

Most of the birds clearly responded to the other bird appearing on the screen, for example by coming closer, leaning towards the screen or touching it. Some birds vocalised or bobbed their head. When a bird moved off-screen the other sometimes looked behind the screen or touched the location where the other bird disappeared. They also reacted to each other’s vocalisation. Only three birds were clearly uncomfortable, stayed away and didn’t engage with the calls. They were excluded from further study.

In the second phase, the parrots only had access to the bell for a limited period of time (due to practical reasons) over multiple sessions. If the bird rang the bell, it was offered the screen. To confirm that they wanted to call another bird, they had to touch its photo and then the human started the call.

Most of the time the birds used their opportunity to place a call although there was a large variability between birds in the total number of calls made. Parrots that initiated more calls were also called more often which means that there were groups with high social motivation and some with low. Birds that initiated calls were usually engaged in the call for its whole duration. Birds that called more often also tended to call sooner after getting access to the bell.

Video calling for the good of all

The results of the study show that the parrots wanted to engage with other birds via video connection. They talked to each other, played and danced together, groomed at the same time or learned new sounds from each other. Some owners reported that their birds “came alive during the calls” and reacted as they would react to a real person or bird.

Additionally, almost all owners said that they saw benefits beyond immediate enjoyment.  These included new foraging and play behaviours, more confidence and decreased agitation. No one reported negative effects.

Some birds seemed to enjoy the calls in and of themselves, others may have been responding more to the special attention from their owners. Also, owners reported better relationships and stronger bonds with their birds. And they wanted to continue making it possible for their birds to call, even though it demanded some effort on their side.

Due to the small sample size of many species and practical issues (e.g. time zone) most of the parrots were not able to call birds of the same species. Potentially, the benefits of video-calling could be even greater if parrots were matched by species. 

It seems that technology can help not only home-bound people but also lonely parrots. And there are also some ideas around for other pets that still need testing.

And who are you going to call next?

Photo from the original article.

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