Nature News By Ernest Gill
Hamburg - In a discovery that is likely to rekindle the debate about language in the animal kingdom, researchers in Germany have discovered that some parrots appear to give their offspring individual names.
Animal behavioural scientists at the University of Hamburg say that spectacled parrotlets use a distinctive call for each of their chicks, with no two chicks being given the same 'name' call.
The small South American parrots also apparently have name calls for their mates.
'The birds very definitely use a particular call exclusively with a particular bird and never for any other bird,' says Dr. Rolf Wanker, head of the Hamburg University Zoological Institute's behavioural research laboratory.
Wanker and his team have spent years assessing video and audio recordings of parrot chatter and squawking.
'What is not yet clear, however, is whether these calls can be equated with what we would call names such as Hans or Fritz or whether they could be more generic labels such as 'my baby' or 'my mate',' he adds.
'For that reason we prefer to refer to these calls as labels or name equivalents,'
The studies were inspired by observations in the spectacled parrotlet's natural habitat in Colombia. There, researchers from Hamburg noted that individual parrots seemed to respond to specific calls that other parrots in the same flock ignored.
'A mother bird had the uncanny ability to utter a cry that would result in her chick returning to the nest immediately amidst the cacophany of the other parrots all around,' Wanker recalls.
'It was obvious that the baby knew it was being called,' he says.
At the Hamburg lab, studies showed that these name equivalents are fractional cries lasting between 90 and 120 milliseconds.
The cry is distinctive enough to provide acoustic clues as to the identity of the individual uttering the call and also to the identity of the intended recipient bird.
'A mother bird uses a different call for her baby from the one she uses for her mate, and they respond with calls that correspondent to her identity,' he says.
Similar findings have been achieved with certain primates and with dolphins. Many years ago, British TV science producer David Attenborough showed that macaque monkeys use distinctive alarm calls to alert other monkeys to danger.
Macaques will use one call to identify a panther, thus telling other monkeys to climb up a tree. But they will use a different call to identify a python, thus ensuring that all the monkeys climb down a tree that has a snake lurking in its branches.
The Attenborough findings are of interest because they involve primates in the wild that have had little or no contact with humans.
That contrasts with studies involving chimpanzees and gorillas in captivity in America over the past four decades which have produced startling but highly controversial evidence that primates can learn and use deaf human sign language.
Other studies have determined that birds develop regional 'accents' and 'dialects' depending on their location. Sparrows in the eastern United States, for example, are known to have subtly different chirps from their cousins on the west coast.
The German findings are the first involving parrots. The spectacled parrotlet is among the smallest parrots, only slightly larger than budgerigars. The bright green birds with a distinctive yellow ring around their eyes live in eastern Panama and northern Colombia.
In the Hamburg study, parent birds and their chicks were placed in separate cages within earshot of each other but out of view of each other.
The birds' calls to each other were recorded and later played back to the individual birds to ascertain their response. The findings demonstrated that name-specific calls were used by each bird.
Wanker shies away from calling this labelling behaviour any form of language, noting that it has yet to be proved conclusively whether humans are the only animals capable of abstract linguistic structures.
He also notes that a fierce debate has been raging for decades among ornithologists and linguists over whether songbirds might be using a form of language. But he points out that, in the avian world, parrots are a special case.
'Parrots are unique among avians,' he says. 'They are the primates of the avian world and are very highly developed creatures with complex social systems and prodigious cognitive skills.'
Some readers comments
Parrots are quite intelligent, and some definitely have language (albeit simpler
than ours, obviously). African Grey Congos in particular seem to have a
more evolved ability to speak, having both superior sound
to other parrot species and typically several times
larger vocabularies than
other talking species.Birds are mostly of interest
in language research because
they are able to learn and communicate with us
in our language. Alex and Dr.
Pepperberg (of the Alex Foundation) are
probably the most notorious; her
research clearly indicates Alex's ability
to verbally identify various objects
and attributes (e.g. colour, matter,
and shape) by visual and tactile
identification.I used to be close friends
with a Soviet Union expat in town with
a degree in linguistics. She raised
her Grey, Picadilly, as though it were her
child -- and taught it as she
would a young child to speak both English and
Russian. The bird learned not
only to parrot the words it heard, but also how to
conjugate basic verbs in
both English and Russian. Speaking from my own personal
experience with my
Grey, he is less of a talker and more of a whistler (a sound
Greys are more
familiar with as their own 'native' calls are similar in sound).
share certain whistles that corrolate to specific meanings: One for
excitement/jubilation, another for mourning when I'm lonely because my wife
out of town, and another that means both "goodbye [to you]" and "I want
to go to
bed" (which involves putting a cover over the cage, equating to
much the same
thing, I suppose).The notion that someone is just now
discovering that some
parrots use "words" to describe identity suggests
they're a couple decades
behind the times. That being said, do parrots
sometimes just "parrot" the sounds
they hear back? Of course! They have a
special preference for sounds that get
your attention, including the loud,
funny, and especially those things you
shouldn't have said.
Some human languages can be whistled, an interesting experiment might be to
use one of them for training a young parrot. That way less effort on producing
the sounds is needed on the part of the bird and, presumably, more into the
grammar and syntax of the language.
This has interested me before but sadly I'm not from the South American
regions that employ it (as apparently it is convenient for communicating across
distances of miles in the hills of the Andes) nor do I know anyone who is. As I
understand it, the "language" is in fact little more than a phrasebook of
perhaps a hundred or so useful phrases for communicating with family/colleagues
about having found something, heading home for the day, that sort of thing; It
might therefore be better just to get an idea of the language then adapt it for
activities that are meaningful for the bird's environment.
I wrote that comment based on vague childhood recollections of someone else's travellogue, but from that recall that it was an actual language rather than a code book of phrases.
Doing a very quick and sloppy search, I find one at least: Silbo. If only four vowels and four consonants sounds limiting, keep in mind how well the Spanish equivalent of pig latin works though all the vowels are changed to i.
Anyway, it might be easier to take some fresh birds to people already using Silbo for a study.
I've said it before, and I shall now say it again:
We really don't
understand what "thinking" is, and I think that as we find out more what
thinking is, we will find that we humans think far less than we think we think,
and that animals think far more than we think they think.
I have 10 small birds, but have owned many others on and off over the
years. Yep, they are totally smart, as well as smarties too lol (I
dont know where the small brain stuff came from...)none of them say any english
words, but they sure know their names I gave them and respond. :)
I took care of my friend's cockatoo for a week or so when she was on
vacation, and they're definitely not dumb animals. It not only had a vocabulary,
but if I ever mentioned her name, it would get visibly excited, raising it's
feathers and whatnot. It obviously associated her name with her, as it also
associated the phrase "cover up" with loud screeching.Andrew, the "small brain
stuff" is about how their brains are physically smaller than ours, thus there is
I don't know if parrots can talk.I kwon they can fly. Or shoud if were
not caged.Put a bird in a cage is one of the worst things that "intelligent"
Most pet birds spend plenty of time out of their cages; Mine spends more out
than in, not counting sleep. That said, feels most secure when he is close to or
completely inside his cage, and he is happiest when his human flock are within
calling distance. He was raised in captivity to be part of a captive breeding
program but wasn't interested in mating; he couldn't live in the wild even if
this were his native biome. Presumably you'd rather he were euthanised than have
him live out an untroubled, "flightless" existance as a pet and part of a family
unit -- something that is more important to parrots (most of which live and die
as a flock species, for whom the flock is everything to them) than humans. What
about captive breeding programs to try to revive nearly-extinct species like
Spix's macaw? You'd rather look at them in a history book too, apparently,
probably near the pages dedicated to the Dodo.Someone here mentioned taking care
of a pet cockatoo for a week or two; I mentioned the Grey Congo. You do know
that these parrots are considered pests in their native countries, right?
Farmers trap and slaughter them by the hundreds with clubs to prevent them from
decimating their crops. But I'm glad you'd rather see them "flying free" as ash
from a bonfire than in the hands of some malevolent human.
About parrots considered pests in their country, I made a quick research
and didn't find anything about that. I'm not saying that isn't true. I'm saying
that I didn't find anything ab
out that. What I know is that exists a illegal
commerce of wild birds. My country, shame of the shames, is a source of these
pour animals, specialy macaws and parrots. It's usual to see news about police
operations against these criminals. But they still exist and, money talks loud,
they are growing. More shame.
About captive breeding programs there are two
faces: one about nearly-extinct species, a very brave and beautiful
iniciative no doubt. Other face is to provide "legal" pets and "preserve"
the wild ones that remain. Sounds good, at first sight. But, the fact is that
kind of program just incentivate people to have birds and who can't pay for
a legal one goes to the illegal others. I'm just asking: why do we need so hard
to have a bird? If no one buy the illegal wild birds, no one will sold
I like birds a lot. I made a place for then out of my house.
And I put fruits (bananas, oranges, papayas, pomegranates, etc), fodder,
seeds and water for then there. There are different kinds of birds at
different hours of the day. And only once there was a parrot there. But it is
very usual to see a lot of "maritacas" (I don't know how it is named in english,
but the bird is very similar to a parrot except their head are smaller and they
can't vocalize, just whistle. Better: scream. They're very noisy). All birds are
wellcome and they are free to come in and get out when they want.. It's a very
special sensation when they come back. I know they don't like me: they like the
food. But still something special.
It's not necessary a cage to take care of
a bird. Of course: if they never leaved the cage, they don't know how to live
out there. But we need to act to convert the captive population of birds into
free birds. It's not something fast to change. But I think if more and more
people become aware of that birds were not made for a cage maybe in two or
three hundred years it can be done.
"You may say I'm a dreamer. But
I'm not the only one." You know who said that. You know the rest.
I live, if a policeman catch you killing a bird, even to eat,
even it is a regular bird finded by the thousands you will be jailed. No
bail allowed (yeah, despite all the shame I've mentionated before, third world
has laws too). Of course birds can cause damage at farms here too. But the
farmers found alternative ways to deal with it. And, of course, some of
then still using the bad methods that have been mentionated or worse. But
it is changing. There is a light in tunnel's end. And it's not the train, I
hope. You may think that is discordant what I said early about growing criminals
that sales wild birds (and other animals) and it realy is. But it is
There are, certainly, some situations that turns some birds life in
nature impossible. There's nothing wrong to take care of these birds (or any
other animal). It's a very beatiful act in fact. But I think these cases
are not most of full population of caged birds.
I was on vacation and the place I was staying had a sofa, a good bookshelf, the
sound of the surf and a light tropical breeze coming in through an open door and
a large picture-window-sized opening in the wall, food and drink and a several
parrots in large cages around the area. One of them was right at the end of the
After several days of blissful vegetation on that sofa I thought I
must be dreaming. I heard "c'mere! c'mere!" coming from the parrot behind my
head. I twisted myself around, and the parrot was looking right at me. I don't
know if it said it again. I got up, went to the cage door, opened it, put my
hand in, the parrot (his name was Moses) climbed on my hand and from there up my
arm to my shoulder, and that was it. For the rest of the two weeks we were
inseparable. One afternoon while I was feeding him peanuts or popcorn or
something he decided to clean my eyelashes with his beak. It took me about a
beat to decide to trust him on that one.
When I went to put him back in the
cage on the day I left, he fought me. I still miss that bird, and it's been more
than ten years.
He never spoke except for those first words. I never tried
to get him to.