Avian imitation, dancing and playing in parrots

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved

The Queens Zoo, part of the Wildlife Conservation Society is a treasure in the city of New York. Tucked away in Corona, Queens, this emerald oasis specializes in exhibiting North American animals, among them you'll find pumas, spectacle bears, coyotes, a superb petting zoo and my favorites-a flock of one of the only two parrot species that were once native to the United States, the Thick-Billed Parrot.

The last native parrots in the United States were reportedly seen in the 1920’s in the case of the Thick-billed parrot, which was native to Southeastern Arizona and in the 30’s in the case of the Carolina Parakeet, which was native to the Carolinas. Both parrot species were eradicated from human pressures, for instance, Thick-billed parrots were hunted to extinction in Arizona by prospectors and settlers pushing westward (the parrots still exist in Mexico but continue to face human pressures as the old growth forests they inhabit fall to logging. This species of parrot builds nest in standing dead trees or "snags" ). The parrots now inhabit northwest Mexico where conservation efforts are attempting to protect their habitat.

This captive parrot flock were subjects of several of my graduate research projects. I spent a lot of time studying their behaviors and reading about them. When you study animal behavior the animal you study gets only more fascinating the longer you study it. These birds are no exception.

To include in my presentations on the birds I would spend hours at the zoo taking pictures of them and countless hours analyzing video footage. Much of that analysis went into papers but what I found in five (four are featured here) photographic images is perhaps just as striking. The youngest members of the flock appear to exhibit almost mirror like images of each other. The images in this article are of two juvenile Thick-Billed parrot brothers.

Now, we know that we cannot infer the state of consciousness of these birds. But these tantalizing images warrant exploration. In my observations the young parrots did appear to be quite aware of each other and they do have a filial association and parrots like to play and are brilliant mimics so it might be possible that these are deliberate postures or not.

Recently two scientific studies were published about the veracity of parrots dancing. The researchers studied videos of parrots dancing on YouTube and concluded that the parrots were actually cognizant of the music by virtue of their movements and the properties of the music. If you take the time to view some of these dancing parrots it seems as if some of the birds are dancing (or mimicking) with their owners while some of the birds appear to dance on their own (search YouTube and compare Snowball with Frosty and decide for yourself).

Parrots are well known for their reticence or shyness in speaking while they are learning human speech patterns. A study on avian imitation documented an Amazon grey parrot who would speak only a few words over a period of years to the experimenter but who spoke thousands of words when observed in private on closed circuit television. The parrot in the study was also observed mimicking sound effects such as doors closing or being knocked on, A possible interpretation of the parrot’s behavior might be that the imitations might be satisfying in themselves or “fun’ for the bird to pass the time in the laboratory setting.

Several years ago, I spent a few weeks working directly with large numbers of parrots at ARCAS in Guatemala (the birds, recovered from poachers, were being rehabilitated for release back to the wild). Those parrots would produce a different set of light, lyrical vocalizations when I would slip on the wood slats of the floor of their enclosure (mighty muddy after it rains in the jungle). Balcombe writing on pleasure and moral significance notes that science is notably silent on the existence of animal pleasure and that these states are known to occur in animals. So I ask you does that mean those parrots in Guatemala were laughing at me and are these juvenile Thick-Billed parrots playing with each other?

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