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Polly wants a Zoom call! Scientists teach parrots to make video calls

Most species of parrots are social creatures in the wild. In captivity, they have to rely on their boring human owners for company. So a group of researchers from Northeastern University, in collaboration with scientists from MIT, and the University of Glasgow, decided to teach the birds to call one another on tablets and smartphones and see what happens.

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The research team gathered a group of 18 parrots across a range of species and their volunteer caregivers to use tablets and smartphones to video-call one another on Facebook Messenger. Three dropped out early due to reacting poorly, e.g. signs of fear or aggression, but the remaining 15 parrots completed the three-month-long study, and it seems they enjoyed the interactions.

As a matter of fact, the ability to approximate communication behavior in the wild using the video calls improved their behavior and, it is speculated, their well-being.

The parrots were taught to initiate up to two calls lasting a maximum of five minutes each by using their beaks to tap the screen during coordinated three-hour sessions.

First, the birds were taught to ring a bell to signal that they wanted to make a call. Once they have learned to use the tablet interface, they were not given treats to remove the possibility that they would ring the bell just for the treat.

That is because the main question was not whether the intelligent avians can be taught to make calls, but whether will they do so willingly.

As evidenced by the delighted squawks and head bobs recorded by the researchers, the answer is a resounding “yes”.

“Some strong social dynamics started appearing,” said Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern who led the study.

The parrots seemed aware that it was a real fellow parrot that they saw on screen. And not only did the caregivers report that the experience appeared positive for the birds, but some have learned new skills, such as foraging, new vocalizations and even flying, from their new friends.

Since the parrots could only make two calls that were daily limited in time, they developed some strong preferences as to whom they wanted to spend the precious video call time with already during the preliminary pilot study.

Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist and Kleinberger’s fellow Northeastern researcher, said that Ellie, her Goffin’s cockatoo, formed a strong friendship with a California-based African gray named Cookie.

“It’s been over a year and they still talk,” Cunha says.

Those parrots that initiated the most calls were also the most likely to receive calls from others, suggesting a reciprocal dynamic, not unlike human socialization works.

All in all, the study suggests that video calls can improve a pet parrot’s quality of life.

As Kleinberger explains, parrots are not domesticated in the same way as dogs, cats, and horses, which have lived by humans’ side for millennia.

“We’re not saying you can make them as happy as they would be in the wild,” she says. “We’re trying to serve those who are already [in captivity].”

This includes birds that for some reason, such as disease, cannot be physically close to other birds.

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Two elderly, sickly male macaws, who have barely ever seen another representative of thor species, formed a deep bond, enthusiastically dancing and singing together, and when one would move out of the frame, the other would begin calling “Hi! Come here! Hello!”

“It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves,” said Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow. “It was really beautiful, those two birds, for me.”

Any owner of a parrot knows how extraordinarily intelligent they are. Some species have even demonstrated cognitive capabilities equal to that of an early-elementary-aged child.

The researchers, however, warn parrot owners not to attempt to replicate the experiment on their own. Not all birds react positively, and interactions unmediated by an expert handler could result in fear, even violence, and property damage to the touch screen.

This is not the first time the research team at Northeastern deployed computer interaction to enrich and understand the lives of animals. Their earlier studies involved such species as dogs and orcas

The original Northeastern articles, along with video footage an pictures of pretty birdies available here.

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