Polly the parrot always seems to want crackers when she is repeating the words of her human companions.
But a recent Journal of Comparative Psychology study reports that parrots may not just be emulating random noises that they hear from people, including pirates. There may be greater social influences at work when parrots choose to speak.
"Parrots, like most birds, are highly social creatures and as a result their speech patterns change in relation to the social context they are in," says Erin Colbert-White of the University of Georgia in Athens, who studied Cosmo, an African Grey Parrot. She and her research team examined how Cosmo's vocal imitation patterns changed when the parrot was separated from or united with her owner.
Colbert-White says that "African Grey Parrots are one of the most sophisticated species of parrots to study and are highly sensitive to changes in their environment." According to the study, parrots are really not mimicking the sounds they hear from humans, they are actually using their highly developed vocal boxes, known as a Syrinx, to generate sounds that represent their level of comfort with a particular location or setting.
Through her team's findings, Colbert-White concluded that parrots are not only changing their vocalizations (tone) when a human, primarily their owner, is in or out of sight, but their "vocabulary richness" (volume) also changes when they sense that their surroundings have been altered.
For example, in most social contexts, Cosmo's vocal richness was greatly reduced when her owner left the room as opposed to when her owner was inside the same room. Cosmo was not only able to sense the position of her owner, but she was also able to change her speech patterns for a multitude of situations and response tests posed to her by the researchers.
For example, when Cosmo's owner was in the room with her alone, the parrot "vocalized slightly more frequently...In contrast, Cosmo vocalized almost twice as much when [her owner] was out of the room...A follow-up analysis showed that in the context [of company] , Cosmo's vocal behavior decreased across time." For the researchers, these results confirmed that the parrot was aware of and based her vocal patterns on her surroundings.
"I want people to understand that most people within the scientific community have discounted the idea that parrots are only imitating the sounds they hear from humans," says Colbert-White. Through this type of research, scientists hope to one day decipher what exactly parrots are saying when they attempt to communicate with people and could likely use this information to understand the sounds and vocal patterns of other members of the animal kingdom.
By Jonathan Lebowitz, USA TODAY Science Fair