60-Second Science

Parrots Mimic Other Specific Parrots

Parrots appear to purposely imitate the calls of other individual parrots from which they wish to get a response. Karen Hopkin reports

Want to get someone’s attention? [“You talking to me? You talking to me?”]

If you want folks to engage, you gotta speak their language. At least that’s what a parrot might recommend. Parrots of course are notorious mimics. But that ability that we find so endearing [parrot singing] also has a function in the wild. Because it seems that Polly purposely imitates the calls of individuals she wishes to address. And for good reason. It’s the bird that’s being mimicked that responds. That’s according to a study in the journal PLoS ONE. [Thorsten J. S. Balsby, Jane Vestergaard Momberg and Torben Dabelsteen, Vocal Imitation in Parrots Allows Addressing of Specific Individuals in a Dynamic Communication Network]

Researchers went to Costa Rica, where they studied three dozen parrots, specifically orange-fronted conures. They recorded each bird’s unique call and then played back a variant of one of those songs to the group. They found that the parrot whose call was being played was quicker to talk back, responding faster and more frequently than the birds that were not singled out.

So imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery. It could be an entertaining way to break the ice.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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