Parrots are wildly underestimated.
They are some of the most popular pets in the world, but how much do we really know about them? My parrot certainly knows how to make me laugh. But does that mean he has a sense of humor? And when he soothes my soul in moments of despair, is it coincidence? Or is it compassion? Let’s see what the experts have to say:
Parrots involuntarily help each other to obtain food rewards.
In a study conducted by Désirée Brucks and Auguste Von Bayern, African gray parrots were trained to exchange tokens with researchers for walnuts.
Then, they were separated into paired compartments with just one parrot receiving tokens. As shown above, the parrot with tokens could provide one to their neighbor, who could then exchange that token with the experimenter for a walnut.
Pairs with closer relationships more readily transferred tokens to one-another, though pairs without close relationships still acted generously.
The study found that closely affiliated African gray parrots “voluntarily and spontaneously” performed selfless acts of kindness for one-another. Though, just like humans, parrots seem more inclined to help out a friend.
The laugher of kea is contagious.
Researchers studying kea parrots in New Zealand’s South Island found that kea play is commonly accompanied with a “high-pitched warbling call” that sounds a lot like laughter.
Although this call could serve a purpose of indicating to flock mates that the vocalizing kea are playing rather than fighting, researchers noticed that the kea also make this call while playing alone, suggesting it may be an expression of their positive mood.
To find out if the play call is contagious to other keas nearby, researchers recorded a variety of kea calls in addition to the play call, then added the calls of South Island robins as a control.
According to researchers, “Upon hearing the play call, many birds did not join in play that was already underway.” Instead, the kea started playing with other non-playing birds, or in the case of solitary play, with an object or by performing aerial acrobatics.
These instances suggest that kea weren’t invited to play, but that this specific call induced playfulness, supporting the hypothesis that play vocalizations can act as a positive emotional contagion.
Parrots invest in their lifelong partners.
“Many bird researchers can tell a story like the one I had in the UK,” writes UChicago Biologist, Trevor Price. He continues, “I caught a female goldfinch, placed her in a bird bag and carried it back to the banding station. All the way back to the station, her mate followed, calling. He waited impatiently in a nearby tree as I banded the female, and when I released her, the pair flew off together in close company, twittering.”
Like goldfinches, parrots are strictly monogamous, and the attempts of males in bonded pairs to woo their female partners often continue long after the formation of the pair bond, suggesting a ceaseless investment in the relationship. Such findings stand in contrast to Darwin’s theories of sexual selection, which speculate that males who “win” the most mates enjoy the most fruitful lives. A bird’s capacity to love is in no way small, and it doesn’t just end with their mate.
For parrots, as with most birds, both parents invest immensely in their offspring, exhibiting teamwork in all things from building nests and guarding eggs, to feeding and protecting the brood.
Though these unbreakable bonds serve an evolutionary purpose to further a bonded pair’s chance of survival, the mates aren’t likely viewing their partnership through a Darwinian lens.
In the wild, the decision to tolerate their partner is one a parrot makes day after day, and the same could be said of their tolerance in dealing with us. Which leads to one final truth:
Parrots make us better humans.
A psychological study by Kidd & Kidd (1983) focusing on the personalities of bird owners concluded that bird owners scored higher than other types of pet owners on affiliation and nurturance. The same study revealed that bird owners are also more contented, courteous, expressive, unpretentious, social, and altruistic.
In 1998, Kidd & Kidd asked parrot owners what they most enjoy about avian companionship. The number one response was unconditional love, followed by:
• Talking abilities
• Making owners laugh
• Providing joy
• Physical contact
• Superiority to other pets
• Mood enhancing
• Calming for owner
• Happy to see owner
• Plays games
• Intuitive / understands owner
The therapeutic effects of living with a companion parrot are vastly underestimated. For so many bird owners, their parrots are the strongest allies they have in battling loneliness and depression.
Stories of bird owners who stopped smoking cigarettes for the safety of their feathered kin aren’t uncommon either. Tragically, parrots face a higher extinction rate than any other group of birds, with approximately 56% of parrot species in decline.
Across the world, they face persistent habitat loss due to agricultural expansion, natural disasters, and climate change. Despite all of this, it seems that some parrots still bear the strength to love, laugh, and inspire joy in others.