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Lonely pet parrots found comfort by learning to video call each other, a new study suggests

The parrots formed strong friendships, which they measured by how frequently they wanted to call the same bird.

Lonely pet parrots found comfort by learning to video call each other,  a new study suggests
Cover Image Source: Youtube | Conservation Mag

Video calling and messaging have revolutionized our ability to connect with people from all over the world in real time. However, what if these technological advancements could also benefit other species, such as birds? Recent research suggests that virtual communication could have positive effects on the well-being of parrots, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Video calls and messaging could enable parrots to connect with other birds that are geographically distant.

Image Source: Pexels/ Magda Ehlers
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Magda Ehlers

A team of researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Glasgow, and MIT have found that domesticated parrots that learned to engage in video chats with other parrots experienced a range of positive outcomes, including the acquisition of new skills. The report was published in the Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The statement also quoted a pet owner who described how their parrot "came alive during the calls."

Rebecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, along with Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist and researcher at Northeastern, and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow, conducted a study involving a group of parrots from various species and their volunteer caregivers. They taught the parrots how to use tablets and smartphones to initiate video chats or calls using Facebook Messenger.

Image Source: Pexels/ Frans van Heerden
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Frans van Heerden

The researchers then analyzed how the parrots used their new ability for three months. They wanted to see if the birds would connect with each other and the answer was yes. "Some strong social dynamics started appearing," said Kleinberger. Not only did the birds make the call, but they apparently understood that there was a real parrot on the other side and had positive experiences.

The significant thing that they found was that the birds engaged in most calls for the maximum allowed time. Moreover, Cunha's bird Ellie, a Goffin's cockatoo, became good friends with a California-based African grey bird named Cookie. "It's been over a year and they still talk," Cunha said.



 

 

Image Source: Pexels/ Anna Tarazevich
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Anna Tarazevich

The idea for the study came from the fact that parrots live in large flocks in the wild. So when they are captive, like at people's homes, they feel bored and isolated. They may develop psychological issues, which can lead to self-harming tendencies. So, the researchers wanted to find a way for more than 20 million pet birds in the US to connect with each other. They hired volunteers from Parrot Kindergarten, an online training program for parrot owners and their pets.

During the first week of the research, the pet owners taught their birds to ring a bell, then touch an image of another pet parrot on a tablet screen to make a call. The parrots ended up making 212 video calls in this phase. The owners disconnected the calls as soon as the birds lost interest and capped their duration at 5 minutes.

In the second phase, the 15 parrots could make calls freely. Also, they could choose the bird they wanted to dial up. In the next two months, the birds made about 147 video calls to each other. The owners took notes about the calls and more than 1000 hours of video footage. "I was quite surprised at the range of different behaviors," co-author Hirskyj-Douglas told The Guardian. "Some would sing, some would play around and go upside down, others would want to show another bird their toys."



 

The researchers found that the parrots formed strong friendships, which they measured by how frequently they wanted to call the same bird. Reportedly, the parrots that made the most calls were the ones who received the most calls also. However, video calls clearly cannot replace the social interactions that birds have in the wild but the researchers noted that it may be beneficial for them to interact with other birds whom they can not meet in person.



 

They cautioned that it might not be wise for every pet owner to initiate FaceTime or Zoom chats for their birds. They clarified that the study had experienced parrot handlers, who had the time and energy to keep a tab on the bird's behavior. The study's authors noted in the statement, "Unmediated interactions could lead to fear [or] even violence and property damage." However, the researchers gained valuable insight from the study - pet parrots exhibit unique and delightful communication patterns when taught to use video chat technologies to connect with their peers.

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