Observations of Parrot Communication
by CB Buckley
The subject of vocal mimicry and animal communication is still in an early-research stage. In the past couple of decades, there have been some major shifts in the field, along with several very recent significant discoveries regarding birds in particular. Avian communication has been an uphill battle for some researchers, especially Irene Pepperberg of The Alex Foundation, who put in a lot of hard work on long-term projects. These researchers were bucking existing dogma (based on scientific “facts”) that birds couldn’t possibly have any real intelligence.
Now, there are new findings on a regular basis, confirming what every parrot owner knows: Parrots are incredibly smart.
Scientists have been reluctant to accept and give meanings to animal body-language or behavior because there is usually disagreement over the interpretation. Speech is much more specific. A talking animal with adequate communication skills resolves much of the problem. That is the reason parrots have become an important ambassador for animal communication.
But again, language isn’t absolute. Speech is such a key to the human experience that we humans can be overly speech-centric. It’s bad enough trying to get two humans, using words, to not talk past each-other; how do we confirm an interpretation of a non-verbal form of communication?
Animals can be even more subtle in their communications than scientists had thought previously. If the animal doesn’t/cannot verbalize it, we can overlook the message they are transmitting. For instance, after millennia of co-existence with dogs, we have just lately become enlightened about canine body language. Tail-wagging dogs, who superficially seemed to all be acting similarly, are actually communicating quite different intents to their doggie contacts—just by wagging their tails to the right vs. wagging to the left.
Typically, our experience comes from us humans trying to communicate with our companion animals. Some of the most famous animals who have communicated with human scientists used non-verbal methods:
Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, chimpanzees, were two of the first to communicate using ASL (American Sign Language)
Koko, the gorilla, also uses sign language—reported to know about 1,000 signs and understand about 2,000 verbal words
Kanzi, the bonobo, uses symbols to communicate about 600 words
Ake, a bottle-nosed dolphin, understands gestures
Phoenix, a bottle-nosed dolphin, comprehends an “acoustic language”
PARROTS USING REFERENTIAL GESTURES
Among several more recent findings regarding non-verbal animal communication was evidence of referential gestures by ravens. A referential gesture (directing an observer’s attention to something—aka “pointing”) is considered a high-level activity and a key developmental phase linked to speech in humans. As of 2012, referential gesturing other than by humans has only been scientifically confirmed in great apes and those ravens.
A referential gesture can also be done by manipulating an object in order to draw an observer’s attention to it with a specific purpose in mind. I recorded several instances of the parrot equivalent to object gesturing that was described in the raven research study.
In a clear demonstration of this, an African grey parrot has attempted to express her wishes by presenting an object, then uses speech, and finally resorts to a blatant referential gesture in order to make her point (via beak). You can watch the video at flychomperfly. “Parrot Beak Makes a Point—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”
In another case, an adult female African grey parrot is attempting to entice (cross-species) a timid Severe Macaw parrot to play with a toy ball. The apprehensive macaw understands that his participation is being solicited as he goes out of his way to avoid even eye contact with the other bird. You can watch the video here. “Macaw Doesn’t Want to Play—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”
The most fascinating referential gestures I’ve seen my birds do, is when the conures go through a bunch of zany (subtle and not-so-subtle) theatrics to lure one another with a tempting toy. Their mischievous gestures get the desired effect. Watch an example of this here. “Smart Parrots Playing ‘Keep-Away’!—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”
Simple interactions that we engage in every day with our parrots are often a form of referential gesturing and cross-species communication. Probably the most familiar, not-so-subtle gesture would be the (in)famous parrot “no thank-you”—aka the “beak-push.”
Many people with companion parrots have experienced their birds coming over and putting their heads down for a head scritch. That is a gesture and certainly qualifies as non-verbal communication (“A scritch, please—right here”). I have recorded a Jenday who tries so hard to get a Nanday to preen her. Of course, the Nanday takes full advantage of the opportunity. Watch that interaction here. “Funny Parrots say “Preen Here”—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”
I have witnessed parrots spontaneously using symbolic gesturing and play-acting to communicate to other parrots or humans. I call it “birdie charades.” It’s a bit like modeling and observational learning, but used specifically as a means of communication.
In an example, one of our conures will flap her wings when she wants her buddy to fly over and join her. It’s definitely not random flapping—in fact, it’s really awkward as she signals the other bird when she’s inside my shirt.
A highly advanced example I observed was when a Jenday tried to coax a Sun conure into a sleeping tent by jumping in-and-out of it and then squawking at the other bird. She did this three times. That seemed quite clear to us humans. When the other conure was still wary of entering, the Jenday grabbed him by the beak and pulled him in. At that point, it was blatantly clear the gestures were absolutely intentional. There are many highly compelling anecdotal accounts of chickens, dogs and other animals using symbolic gestures.
ALTRUISTIC VOCALIZATIONS IN PARROTS
Although parrots are indeed tricksters, I have witnessed that they also use vocalizations for cooperation and altruism. Chimpanzees are known to alert one-another when they have found a good food source, and I have documented how all my birds (cross-species) use a common call to announce a “goodie” to the rest of the flock. Plus, my parrots are not only different species; they are a mix of both “Old World” (African) and “New World” (South American) parrots. Despite that, they will share the good news with one-another when they encounter something they consider to be excellent—it can be some special food, a cool toy, or a nice bath. You can watch an example of this here. “Parrots Sharing—FlyChomperFly Research Series: CROSS SPECIES VOCALS Altrusitic”
GESTURES AND SOUND FOR DECEIT
Parrots not only use vocalizations and referential gestures to communicate. We’ve seen them take it to the next level: deception. Lots of animals will use vocalizations, body language, and other means of tactical deception. However, referential gestures as deception are more rare.
I’m sure many of you have probably (unfortunately) experienced how a bird will put his head down to “ask” for the scritch…you reach out, and…Gotcha! A bite instead. We know that parrots will indeed use a gesture as a decoy—an intentionally fake gesture. With my flock, deception is usually used in play. Here are some bluffs that my birds have done frequently:
- Referential gestures: present an object as a lure and then snatch it away just as the other bird tries to grab for it (as shown in the video above)
- Vocalizations: use calls as a decoy to try to fake out another bird into thinking there is something interesting, when nothing is there; watch an example here. “Parrots Tell Lies!—FlyChomperFly Research Series: GESTURES AND SOUND FOR DECEIT”
MY FINDINGS IN PARROT COMMUNICATION AND VOCALIZATIONS
Why do birds mimic? Specific motivations for mimicking by parrots in particular have been an enigma for researchers. Research published by Mukta Chakraborty et al., has now revealed that the brains of those birds that are the best mimics (i.e. parrots) also have specialized brain development. They found it goes back to a common ancestor of both parrots and the kea, 29 million years ago.
We don’t know yet the mechanics of the evolution, but scientists have shown that parrots recognize each other by unique calls (“vocal labeling”). According to Thorsten Balsby et al. it may have been to allow members of complex dynamic flocks to identify specific individuals, and communicate directly with one-another.
Since 1972, it has been observed that in the wild, Amazons and other birds will sing long duets in what are called “antiphonal duets” or songs. Listen to an example of the wild Amazon song duet here. Michael D. Schindlinger, Harvard University
Curiously, my flock also sings those “duets.”
Motivation for the songs eluded researchers, who have proposed theories related to mating, alerting, specific messages, territorial aggression, settling down, conflicts or cooperation between pairs, etc. Having witnessed my birds creating their own song, I was fortunate to gain an insight into the song structure.
My birds would experiment with sounds and series of sounds—could be parts of contact calls, trills, whistles, environmental sounds, etc. When one of them found a phrase they liked, it went to the top of their “hit music chart”—they sang it over and over. As they came up with additional “fave” sounds, they built those into their original song. Multiple birds contributed to it; the song was a group effort…and evolved over time as they embellished it. Even having built it up together, each bird will sing their own rendition of it—adding or subtracting parts in an ad-lib fashion.
Here is how my flock’s song evolved:
- First, a male Sun and a female Jendaya conure made up their own song, each adding to it their own “stanzas.”
- They then taught the song to a female Nanday and a female African grey, who added their own “stanzas.”
- The Nanday and grey then taught the song to my current female Jenday, who never met the original authors.
- I recorded the Nanday singing solo, followed by the grey singing solo…and then the Nanday and grey singing it as a cross-species duet. The grey is off-camera in another room for the duet. You can watch here. “Amazing Cross-Species Parrot Song—FlyChomperFly Research Series: ANTIPHONAL DUET”
The birds shown in the videos are all females, so the individual renditions are not based on gender or sexual pair-bonds. No actions were ever instigated by the song except for joining in on the song. It is clearly a social activity, and the energy of the song changes according to their motivation. I suspect the Amazon pairs in the wild would draw from existing songs, which they would customize to make their own.
My flock sings it within sight of one another and as a solo, so in addition to it being a contact-call song, they sing it for relaxation (like we hum a song), or just for fun. Based on these observations, parrots apparently engage in social activities that are not directly related to survival.
REPORTING UNIQUE CALL-AND-RESPONSE VOCALIZATIONS
Humans with flighted parrots will also participate in flock contact-calling. It is a natural social interaction that is especially valuable to those who freefly their parrots outside. Being grounded, a human’s primary means of contact with their flying birds is vocal calls, and parrots willingly integrate their humans into their contact call routine.
While many contact calls are taught from human-to-parrot, some of the parrots have initiated the role of teaching the human their own call. My first Jenday did that with me.
People with non-flighted birds may also have experienced a form of contact call. Many parrots will say or make sounds that they “expect” us to learn and understand. They may invent a unique call that indicates they are hungry, want to be moved or want to go to sleep. Our grey made up her own whistle sound to tell us she was ready to have the lights turned off. This vocalization differs in a very special way from the parrot duet—in that the parrot is soliciting and expecting not just a vocal response, but an actionable response from the recipient of their sounds. If you ever joked about feeling like you’re being trained by your bird, then this kind of interaction is a valid example that could scientifically qualify as your parrot intentionally training you.
A SONG GAME
While the parrot antiphonal duet is more like a pop song for my flock, it also (as described) functions as a form of contact call when they join in from remote locations. And now, my parrots have transformed part of their song into a contact call “game.”
I am presenting an extraordinary development regarding the antiphonal song. Embedded in my flock’s song are some groupings of sounds we might consider “choruses.” One short chorus in particular has evolved into a popular riff for them that is the birdie equivalent of the human Shave-and-a-Haircut-2Bits. (For those of you who do not remember that bit, it’s where one person or instrument starts a musical phrase, and then another person or instrument “answers” with the ending.) Here is an example of a bird participating in the human version. (Hahn’s Macaw (Maya) singing “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits”)
My flock has taken a chorus from their antiphonal song and invented their own unique birdie couplet. They have turned it into a cross-species vocalization game, where one of them randomly starts, then the others jump in to answer. I have recorded the elements of the game:
- First, several instances of the chorus as it originally appeared embedded within their antiphonal song—we hear both parts (start and finish) from the same bird—so it can be easily recognized as a stand-alone.
- Then, the parrots singing it as a call-and-response vocal game. Note how part of the game at times is to see how quickly they can recognize and answer when one of them starts it.
As an experiment, I tried to join the game—even though my “squawking” was done with a “human accent.” I was amazed to find how readily they accepted anyone joining in. You can observe the game for yourself here. “Parrot Singing Game—FlyChomperFly Research Series: CALL RESPONSE (Shave-and-a-Haircut mode)”
What species survival benefits have humans gained from challenging ourselves to produce art or music? Why would highly intelligent parrots be different? Such mental stimulation from social activities may benefit the brain and should not be discounted when evaluating motivations for parrot behavior. In other words, what a parrot does isn’t always based on strict instincts, the environment or his primary survival needs.
CB Buckley is committed to improving parrot-human companionship. She encourages out-of-cage activity and in-home flight. She has been documenting parrot behavior for the research community while dispelling common misconceptions. Her focus is to use the intelligence of the bird in all interactions. She demonstrates her approach on her YouTube channel, FlyChomperFly.