To the untrained ear, the chirps and squawks of a parrot’s call might seem like just a random series of notes amidst the symphony of sounds in the regions where they live. But that’s far from the truth.
Not only do parrots’ calls have meaning — some of those calls couldn’t be more meaningful to them.
It just took a little decoding on the part of humans to find that out.
It has long been known that parrots kept in captivity pick up on and replicate the noises they hear, but Dr. Karl Berg wanted to discover how that process works in the wild. In doing so, he focused on green-rumped parrotlets, a talkative species of parrot that is native to Venezuela’s savannas and woods.
Dr. Berg discovered that wild parrots not only pick up new songs and noises, but they also seem to learn one crucial sound in particular.
To determine if baby parrots learned sounds from their parents, or if they simply inherited them as instinct, Dr. Berg needed to make blended green-rumped parrotlet families. So, he secretly swapped eggs from nesting boxes used by the wild parrots in his study, effectively making them foster kids.
Then, with recording equipment, Dr. Berg monitored those nesting boxes as the parrot parents hatched, raised and — most importantly of all — sang to their babies.
Interestingly, Dr. Berg found that when the foster babies began singing for themselves, they sounded more like their foster parents than natural ones. They were learning! And more fascinating yet, each baby’s learned song varied slightly from the others, making it a unique identifier.
In other words, the song they learned from their parents was, in essence, their very own name.
These names go on to serve an important role throughout each parrot’s life, both as a way of announcing who they are and to know when another parrot is talking to them.
Unique identifiers do come in handy, after all.
The songs of these parrots resonating in the jungles of Venezuela take on new significance in light of Dr. Berg’s study deciphering their cries and how they are taught. They are tuneful representations of the love and care they got from their parents rather than just noises hardwired by instinct.
What’s a name worth? A loving legacy left behind for both humans and green-rumped parrotlets.