Scientists Taught Parrots to Make Video Calls — Now They Won’t Stop Calling Their Friends

  • It’s not just people who love talking on the phone for hours on end.

When you’re feeling troubled and alone, what do you do? Most people tend to grab the phone and call someone.

As it turns out, so will parrots. At least, if somebody teaches them how to use a phone.

A team of scientists from the Northeastern University, MIT, and the University of Glasgow recently published the results of a peculiar study. Parrots tend to flock together, but all over the world, pet birds live in isolation.

The researchers wondered what would happen if we taught lonely parrots to call each other.

“There are 20 million parrots living in people’s homes in the U.S., and we wanted to explore whether those birds might benefit from video calling,” Dr. Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas from the University of Glasgow told The Guardian.

Well, the study found the birds will call each other — and they don’t want to stop.

Every single one of the birds participating in the study placed phone calls, and it wasn’t a case of the owner sticking the phone in front of them. The parrots began asking for the phone because they wanted to squawk to their friends.

Being able to connect with other parrots significantly improved their lives. Case in point, one previously flightless bird learned to fly — because its friend taught it how over Zoom.

Photos courtesy of Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Call if You Want

In the study, the researchers gathered 18 parrots of various species all over the U.S. They taught the birds how to use the touchscreen interface of a mobile phone or tablet, providing additional motivation with some treats.

They also showed the birds how to make their first calls. Then, the rest was up to the parrots.

According to the scientists, an important part of the study was that the parrots were free to decide whether or not they wanted to place a call. They were taught to ring a small bell if they wished to call another parrot.

And boy did the bells start ringing.

The parrots appeared to understand that they weren’t looking at a mirror or a moving image of a bird. They realized that there was another living, breathing parrot on the other end of the line.

That also meant that the birds’ owners had to take some precautions. The parrots were restricted to five minutes of screen time in one session. The owners also received strict instructions to cut the call at the first signs of aggression or fear.

Three parrots didn’t deal with the calls so well and ended up dropping out. But the 15 that remained loved every moment on the phone.

Playing and Learning

Not only did the parrots learn to ask to place a call — they didn’t want to get off the phone. The birds that completed the study would stay on the line until the last second.

While calling each other, the parrots acted much like they would in the wild. They would learn to imitate each others’ vocalizations, much in the same call-and-response manner that wild parrots do.

“I was quite surprised at the range of different behaviors. Some would sing, some would play around and go upside down, and others would want to show another bird their toys,” said Hirskyj-Douglas.

It wasn’t all empty parrot gossip, though. The parrots began to learn from each other over the phone and pick up potentially life-changing skills.

Some birds learned to forage for food in ways they had never used before. But the most amazing case must be the parrot that learned to fly.

The bird had spent its entire life in captivity and had never figured out how to use its wings. By interacting with another parrot over the video call, it was soon flapping around its home.

Finally, the parrots started forming friendships. They were free to choose which birds they wanted to call by tapping their pictures on the touchscreen.

It quickly became clear that they avoided parrots they just didn’t click with — just like we avoid calling people that annoy us. But if two parrots got along, they would quickly become lifelong friends.

Jennifer Cunha, a researcher at Northeastern University, enrolled her Goffin’s cockatoo Ellie in the study. She became inseparable from Cookie, an African gray parrot from California.

“It’s been over a year and they still talk,” said Cunha.

Intelligent — but Lonely

So, what does this study tell us? First of all, it’s a true testament to parrots’ intelligence.

Not only did the birds learn how to place calls, they understood they were “talking” to an actual living bird. All in all, the birds appear to have the intellectual capacity of a young elementary-school-aged human child.

But perhaps more importantly, it shows us how vital socializing is to parrots’ mental and physical well-being. The results of the study can help both pet owners and professional animal caretakers provide better care for their birds.

Video calls could be particularly good for birds that can’t be in physical contact with others, whether due to illness or other reasons. That’s what happened with two old, sick macaws.

The pair had lived their lives in isolation, barely seeing a glimpse of another macaw in their lives. But once they learned to video call, the trembling seniors suddenly seemed many years younger as they sang, danced, and played together.

“It really speaks to how cognitively complex these birds are and how much ability they have to express themselves. It was really beautiful, those two birds, for me,” said Hirskyj-Douglas.