What happened when scientists taught parrots to video chat?

Parrots, known for their impressive intelligence and charming vocal mimicry, do has become popular as a pet in recent decades. However, the same qualities that make the birds fascinating to observe can also cause problems. A lack of socialization and proper stimulation can cause parrots to act out, or in some cases even harm themselves. A estimated 40% of cockatoos and African grays, two popular species of parrots, are reported to engage in potentially harmful feather destruction. Much of this stress-induced, destructive behavior is a byproduct of parrots living in environments drastically different from their natural habitat, where they fly freely among conspecifics. New suggestions suggest that modern technology, especially Facebook Messenger video chats, could help these birds regain their social lives

“In the wild they live in herds and constantly socialize with each other,” Associate Professor Hirskyj-Douglas from the University of Glasgow said in a statement. “As pets, they are often kept alone, which can cause them to develop negative behaviors such as excessive pacing or feather picking.”

Researchers from Northeastern University, MIT and the University of Glasgow recently investigated how different species of parrots interacted when they made short video calls with each other. Over the course of three months, the researchers trained 18 parrots and their human caregivers to learn how to operate touchscreen tablets and smartphones. The birds were initially trained to associate video calls with a bell. Each time the bell was rung during the training phase, the bird received a treat. Caregivers, meanwhile, were trained to end the call as soon as the bird showed signs of stress or discomfort. Once trained, the birds were free to ring the bell on their own. If they did, their keepers would open Facebook Messenger and connect them with other birds around the country involved in the study. associated video calls with a bell and fed the birds a treat every time they rang the bell. The parrots were then able to access Facebook Messenger to video call other birds across the country.

The results were shocking. In almost all cases, the birds' caretakers claim that the video calls improved their well-being. Some birds even seemed to learn new skills, such as foraging or better flying, after seeing other birds do this. Two of the birds, a cockatoo named Ellie and an African Gray named Cookie, are still calling each other almost a year later.

“It really says something about how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves,” says Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, assistant professor at the University of Glasgow. said in a statement. “For me it was really beautiful, those two birds.”

Bird video calls resulted in long-lasting friendships

The research into the birds was divided into two phases. During the first ten weeks, caregivers were instructed on how to introduce and train the birds to interact with the touchscreen devices. Although previous research has examined the use of touchscreens in cats, dogs, bears and rodents, parrots are particularly suited to using the devices thanks to their combination of high cognitive skills, impressive vision and flexible tongues. After being trained with the devices, all the birds involved took part in a 'meet and greet', conducting short video calls with each bird at least twice. The birds were trained with treats to ring a bell to indicate they were interested in jumping on a call.

In phase two of the study, the treats were removed to see if the birds would still be interested in a video call without a food reward. All the birds kept ringing the bell, and some did so many times. Once called, the researchers presented the birds with a home screen on a tablet with photos of different birds in the study. The parrot then used its tongue to click on the companion it wanted to communicate with. As soon as they saw a bird on the other side of the call, the parrots jumped to the screen, let out loud cries and nodded their heads. Researchers believe that the sounds in particular may reflect the types of calls and responses that parrots often engage in when they are in the wild.

Researchers have observed several examples of birds that appeared to mimic each other's behavior. Some started grooming themselves after seeing a bird doing it on the other side of the screen. Other times the birds 'sang' in unison. One video shows a colorful parrot eagerly waiting for a call to connect. Eventually, a large white bird appears on the other end of the line, causing the red bird to bang its head and chirp in excitement. In another case, a male macaw during a video call with a fellow macaw uttered the phrase: “Hello! Come here!” When the second bird left the screen, the vocalizing bird quickly rang a bell, which the keepers interpreted as the bird asking its friend to return to the screen.

“A strong social dynamic began to emerge,” Northeastern Assistant Professor Rébecca Kleinberger said in a statement.

Animal photo

Parrots prefer to call real birds rather than pre-recorded video footage

Interestingly, the parrots included in the study seemed substantially less interested in video calls when shown pre-recorded video footage of other birds. a related study A publication by researchers at the University of Glasgow found that the parrots strongly preferred to chat with other parrots in real time. Over the course of the six-month observation, the parrots spent more time talking to real birds than watching the pre-recorded videos. These findings suggest that the birds did not exist solely because of the presence of a screen. On the contrary, actual communication with another living bird plays an important role.

Combined, the birds in the study spent 561 minutes having love conversations with other birds, compared to just 142 minutes interacting with the pre-recorded videos. The birds' keepers confirmed that point, telling the researchers that they seemed more curious and engaged when there was a live bird on the other end of the line.

“The appearance of 'aliveness' really seemed to make a difference in the parrots' engagement with their screens,” Douglas wrote recently. “Their behavior when interacting with another live bird often reflected the behavior they would exhibit in real life with other parrots, which was not the case in the pre-recorded sessions.”

Researchers are hopeful that these findings could one day be used to help parrots improve their socialization. And while some of the parrot keepers surveyed noted the steep learning curve in training the parrots, all said the project was worth it once completed. An overwhelming 71.4% of keepers in the video calling survey said their birds had a very positive experience. In contrast, none of them described the experience as negative. One caregiver in particular claimed her pet “came alive during the phone calls.”

'We're not saying you can make them [the parrots] as happy as they would be in the wild,” Kleinberger said. “We try to serve those who already are [in captivity].”

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