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Parrots teaching each other to make video calls are less lonely, research reveals birds

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Pet parrots who are allowed to video call other birds show signs of feeling less isolated, according to scientists.

The study, which involved giving the birds a tablet they could use to make video calls, found that they began to engage in more social behaviour, including preening, singing and playing. The birds were given the option of choosing a “mate” to call on a touchscreen tablet and the study showed that parrots that called other birds most often were the most popular choice.

Dr Ileana Hirskyj-Douglas from the University of Glasgow and co-author of the research said video calls have helped many people feel less isolated in the pandemic. She said: “There are 20 million parrots living in people’s homes in the United States, and we wanted to find out whether those birds could also benefit from video-calling. If we gave them the opportunity to call other parrots , would they like to do it, and would the experience benefit the parrots and their caretakers?”

Their analysis, based on more than 1,000 hours of footage of 18 pet parrots, suggested that there were indeed benefits for the birds. Many species of parrots live in large flocks in the wild, but as pets they are kept singly or in small groups. Isolation and boredom can cause birds psychological problems, which may manifest as self-injurious behavior such as rocking, pacing back and forth, or plucking feathers.

The scientists suggested that video calling could reproduce some of the social benefits of living in a herd.

The parrots were recruited from users of Parrot Kindergarten, an online coaching and educational program for parrots and their owners. The birds first learned to ring a bell and then touch a picture of another bird on the tablet device’s screen to call that bird with the help of their owners. In total the birds made 147 intentional calls to each other during the study, while the owners took detailed notes on the birds’ behavior and the researchers later reviewed the video footage.

Dr. Jennifer Cunha, of Northeastern University and co-founder of Parrot Kindergarten, said the parrots “seem to understand” that they were engaging with other birds because their behavior was observed during real-life interactions. “All participants in the study said they value the experience, and would like to continue using the system with their parrots in the future,” she said.

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

team paper is published in Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on the Human Factor in Computing Systems,