Just pretty birds?

Just pretty birds?

Just pretty birds?

Juan F Masello, a principal investigator in animal ecology and systematics at Justus Liebig University in Germany, is one of a small but unabashedly enthusiastic circle of researchers who study Psittaciformes, the avian order that includes parrots, parakeets, macaws and cockatoos. For all their visual splash and cartoon familiarity, parrots have long been given scientific short shrift in favour of more amenable subjects like, say, zebra finches or blue tits.

But through a mix of rugged and sometimes risky field work, laboratory studies and a willingness to shrug off the frequent loss of expensive tracking equipment,
researchers are gaining insights into the lives, minds and startling appetites of
parrots.

Feathered primates
Parrot partisans say the birds easily rival the great apes and dolphins in all-around braininess and resourcefulness, and may be the only animals apart from humans capable of dancing to the beat. “We call them feathered primates,” said Irene Pepperberg, who studies animal cognition at Harvard and is renowned for her research with Alex and other African grey parrots. “They’re very good colleagues,” said Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, who studies the Goffin’s cockatoo of Indonesia.

Many of the recent discoveries are described in a new book, Parrots of the Wild: A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating Birds, by Catherine A Toft and Timothy F Wright. Alice and her colleagues have found that Goffin’s cockatoos are among the most spontaneously inventive toolmakers ever described, and that the birds can learn how to fashion the latest food-fetching device after just a single viewing of a master cockatoo at work.

Studying the yellow-naped amazon (parrot) of Costa Rica, Timothy and his colleagues have discovered that different populations of the parrot communicate with one another in distinct dialects that remain stable over decades, like human languages. Just as with people, young parrots can easily master multiple dialects while their elders can’t or won’t bother to do likewise.

A recent DNA analysis showed that parrots were closely related to falcons, a finding that dovetails with field studies of parrots’ often merciless dietary habits. While falcons are predators in the conventional sense, hunting and devouring other animals, parrots turn out to be no less bloodthirsty in their approach to feasting on plants.

Parrots pooh-pooh the fruit pulp and home in on the seeds, crushing the casings to extract the plant embryos and the cache of fats and proteins intended to help those embryos germinate. “A parrot is a plant carnivore,” Timothy said. “It destroys the seed. It goes right in through the fruit and eats the plant baby.”

Flexible and impervious
The Psittacines are a mid-size club of about 360 species, ranging in size from the pygmy parrots of New Guinea, which are smaller than house sparrows, to the bulky, flightless kakapos of New Zealand, which can weigh up to nine pounds.

The parrot’s muscular jaw and huge bill — specially hinged to allow top and bottom to move independently, up and down and from side to side — can crack open even the toughest and woodiest shells. The curved points of the bill act rather like lobster picks, ideal for scooping out seed meat. Parrots can similarly clip apart leg bands, satellite holsters and other animal-tracking devices, which is one reason most researchers have avoided them.

Another demand of granivory, or seed predation, is the power to withstand the many defensive chemicals that plants pack into their genetic hope chests. Researchers have lately gathered evidence that a drive to detoxify could explain why parrots often converge on clay flats and start nibbling at the ground.

Gift of gab
Yet seed hunting’s greatest evolutionary effect on parrothood may well have been psychosocial, transforming the birds into brainy schmoozers. Fruiting trees are a patchy and unpredictable resource, and parrots often fly many miles a day in quest of food.

Under such circumstances, searching in groups turns out to be more efficient than solitary hunting, especially when group members can trade tips on promising leads.

“That can mean the development of a social system, as well as the neurological capacity to share information,” a researcher said. The vocal capacity, too: parrots call to one another continually, squawkishly, over long distances and short. “They are communicating to each other all the time,” Juan said. The calls may be as much about asserting group identity as exchanging hunting tips. Seeking to understand why the yellow-naped Amazons in northern Costa Rica had a different call from those living 18 miles to the south, Timothy’s team tried moving several parrots from one site to the other.

The youngest parrot quickly mastered the dialect of its new home and began flocking with the locals. The older transplants, however, failed to become adept bilingualists and never quite fit in. Instead, they associated with each other. “They formed a little immigrant enclave,” Timothy said, adding, “Vocal similarity is very important for maintaining social relationships,” in parrots as in humans.

Always trying something new
Researchers are still getting a bead on parrot intelligence, and they are repeatedly surprised by each new display of it. Irene and her collaborators have shown that African grey parrots have exceptional number skills: Alex could deduce the proper order of numbers up to eight, add three small numbers together and even had a zero-like concept — “skills equivalent to those of a 41⁄2-year-old child,” Irene said.

Alice and her co-workers have found that Goffin’s cockatoos are more geared toward solving technical tasks. Alternately using their bills and feet, the birds can systematically make their way through a lock with five different complex mechanisms on it. Should they discover that one of the steps can be skipped en route to opening a chamber with a nut inside, they skip it the next time around.

And in an act of ingenuity that Alice called “sensational” for an animal not known to use tools in the wild, a cockatoo named Figaro one day started carefully chipping at the edge of a larch wood frame until he had formed a long, slender pole, which he then wielded in his bill like a hockey stick to knock out pebbles and nuts hidden under boxes.

“It took him 20 minutes to make his first tool,” Alice said. “After that, he could do it in less than five minutes.” Other cockatoos that watched Figaro build his tool and then retrieve his nut reward were soon chipping at scraps of wood and batting out nuts. Figaro didn’t stop there. Soon he was using sticks to draw patterns in the sand, Alice said.
Yes, a cockatoo can doodle, too.
The New York Times

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