Does Your Pet Parrot Spend Too Much Time Alone?

New research shows these smart, sociable birds can learn to video call each other.

Jun 7, 2023
Does Your Pet Parrot Spend Too Much Time Alone? | New research shows these smart, sociable birds can learn to video call each other.

Engaging, funny and intelligent parrots make charismatic pets and have captivated many famous parrot pet parents from former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, to artist Frida Kahlo.  But as any parrot enthusiast will tell you, these smart birds live in flocks in the wild, love company and can suffer when home alone. However help is at hand in the form of parrot video calls, finds a remarkable new study

Pandemic learning points
Turns out the pandemic’s ubiquitous video calling sessions which kept much of our interpersonal contact alive during lockdowns, can be harnessed by lonely parrots too, the new research reveals. 

Rébecca Kleinberger, an assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachussets; Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist and Northeastern researcher; and Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an assistant professor at the University of Glasgow are the scientists behind this study:  “Birds of a Feather Video-Flock Together,” reveals Northeastern Global News. They were focused on a key goal; finding a way of offering stimuli to parrots that meet the high social, cognitive and emotional needs of these unique birds. 

This research, as The Guardian reveals, found that video chats offered parrots an opportunity to actively reduce their isolation through connection and developing friendships with other parrots. Or as Dr Hirskyj-Douglas told the newspaper, “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. 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?”

No bird brains here! 
As the study’s abstract reveals, having reviewed literature on bird perception and agency, the scientists developed an approach to enable parrots to video-call other parrots. Following a pilot study, they ran a three-month study with 18 pet birds to measure the value and usability of a parrot-parrot video calling system. This was then evaluated looking at four elements: perception, agency, engagement and overall perceived benefits. 

The parrot owners played a vital role in training their beloved pets to become a new species of digital native and video call other birds. According to  My Modern Met, the group of 18 parrots ranging from African grey parrots to cockatoos were trained by their owners, under the guidance of researchers,  to hit a bell when they wanted to engage in a call, and were initially rewarded with treats. They were then shown images of various other birds in the study on a touchscreen tablet and allowed to make up to two five-minute calls in three hours. 

Based on careful analysis of more than 1,000 hours of footage, and feedback from the parrots’ owners carefully logged in diaries, the birds showed signs of being less isolated after the video calls and of an overall positive experience. 

After the calls, as The Guardian details, the bird subjects began to engage in more social behavior including mirroring, preening,and singing.  The birds were allowed to choose which parrots “friend” to call, and the study revealed that the parrots calling other birds most often were the most popular choices. My Modern Met reports that many owners saw the birds pick up new skills from their online buddies such as new vocalizations.

With 147 bird-triggered calls, the results were encouraging, the study’s abstract concludes: “ 1) every bird used the system, 2) most birds exhibited high motivation and intentionality, and 3) all caretakers reported perceived benefits, some arguably life-transformative, such as learning to forage or even to fly by watching others.”

Kleinberger puts the advantages of online parrots calls in a nutshell to My Modern Met:  video calling could reproduce some of the social benefits of living in a flock.

And enduring friendships are evident after the study has ended. Cunha shares that her Goffin's cockatoo Ellie is still—over a year later—chatting with Cookie, an African grey from the study.

Lonely In London No Longer!
Bonding Over Sea Slugs!
Cheeky Parrot Captures a “Bird’s-Eye View” of Nature

Daphne has a background in editing, writing and global trends. She is inspired by trends seeing more people care about sharing and protecting resources, enjoying experiences over products and celebrating their unique selves. Making the world a better place has been a constant motivation in her work.