The calls helped otherwise-isolated parrots create social bonds, boosting their confidence and making them calmer.
Countless people around the world love making video calls — dialing up a loved one, seeing their face, and hearing their news. And according to a new study from Northeastern University, in collaboration with researchers from MIT and the University of Glasgow, parrots like making video calls too.
“There are 20 million parrots living in people’s homes in the USA, and we wanted to explore whether those birds might benefit from video calling too,” Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, a researcher at the University of Glasgow and the study’s co-author, explained to The Guardian.
“If we gave them the opportunity to call other parrots, would they choose to do so, and would the experience benefit the parrots and their caregivers?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
As The New York Times reports, 18 parrots (and their owners) were enrolled in the study. They were trained to request a video call by ringing a bell, after which their owner would offer them the choice of which parrot to call from a screen. Before long, the parrots started to clamor for more screen time.
During the 147 calls, which resulted in more than 1,000 hours of recorded footage, the parrots would sing together, learn new skills from each other, and even attempt to groom each other through the screen.
“We had birds who would sleep next to each other,” Hirskyj-Douglas told The New York Times. “Sometimes they would leave the video call real quickly to go get something to show the other bird.”
In one case, two sickly and elderly macaws grew especially close. Despite having never spent time with others of their species, they quickly bonded. Northeastern Global News reports that they danced and sang happily when they saw one another. And if one bird moved out of the frame, the other would call: “Hi! Come here! Hello!”
“It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves,” Hirskyj-Douglas said. “It was really beautiful, those two birds.”
Not only did many of the birds develop favorite friends and pick up skills like flying and foraging for snacks, but they also seemed to be much happier. The New York Times reports that the study’s avian participants appeared calmer and more confident. Some owners felt like their birds had transformed.
“Some of the caregivers would say that their birds came to life through these calls,” Jennifer Cunha, one of the study’s co-authors, remarked.
That said, the study’s authors don’t suggest grabbing the nearest iPad and setting up calls between your parrot and others. The humans in their study were experienced bird owners who introduced the technology slowly, and the parrots were particular about who they chose to communicate with. Unsupervised interactions, Northeastern Global News notes, could lead to the parrots feeling fear, which could, in turn, lead to a bird shattering an iPad screen.
Nevertheless, the study does underline the importance of social connection for birds. Parrots are highly intelligent and sociable creatures who live in flocks in the wild. But they often lack this sense of community as pets.
“Over 20 million parrots are kept as pets in the US, often lacking appropriate stimuli to meet their high social, cognitive, and emotional needs,” the study’s authors noted.
The Guardian reports that distressed birds suffering from isolation and boredom can develop psychological problems. They might pace, pluck their feathers, or rock back and forth. And the video calls clearly showed that birds can benefit from social interaction (even when it’s virtual).
“Now we know that if given access to it, they would use it,” Hirskyj-Douglas remarked to The New York Times. “And they use it in very individual and very beautiful ways.”
Indeed, the study seems to have forged long-term friendships between some of its participants. At least two birds who learned to video call, a Goffin’s cockatoo named Ellie and an African grey named Cookie, have continued to stay in touch.
“It’s been over a year,” Cunha said, “and they still talk.”
After reading about how parrots seem to enjoy video calls as much as people, discover the story of Alex the parrot, who may have been the world’s smartest bird. Or, look through this list of terrifying birds you wouldn’t want to encounter in the wild.