When humans are feeling lonely, we can call or video chat with friends and family who live far away. But, scientists asked, what about pet parrots? New research suggests that these chatty creatures may also benefit from virtually connecting with their peers.
Domesticated parrots that learned to initiate video chats with other pet parrots had a variety of positive experiences, such as learning new skills, researchers from Northeastern University, the University of Glasgow and MIT report this month in Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
“She came alive during the calls,” one pet parent said about their bird, according to a Northeastern University statement.
The idea for this study was not random: In the wild, parrots tend to live in large flocks. But when kept in captivity, such as in people’s homes as pets, these social birds are often on their own. Feeling bored and isolated, they may develop psychological issues and can even resort to self-harming tendencies like plucking out their feathers.
Lonely parrots are unhappy parrots, so researchers set out to find a way for some of the estimated 20 million pet birds living in the United States to connect with each other. They recruited volunteers from Parrot Kindergarten, an online training program for parrot owners and their beloved pets.
During the first two weeks of the study, owners taught their birds to ring a bell, then touch an image of another pet parrot on a tablet screen to initiate a video call. In this initial phase, the participating birds made 212 video calls while their owners carefully monitored their behavior. Owners terminated calls as soon as the birds stopped paying attention to the screen and capped their duration at five minutes. Though 18 parrots began the experiment, three dropped out.
Once the birds had learned how to initiate video interactions, the second phase of the experiment could begin. In this “open call” period, the 15 participating birds could make calls freely; they also got to choose which bird to dial up. Over the next two months, pet parrots made 147 deliberate video calls to other birds. Their owners took detailed notes about the calls and recorded more than 1,000 hours of video footage that the researchers analyzed.
For starters, they found that the parrots took advantage of the opportunity to call one another, and they typically stayed on the call for the maximum time allowed during the experiment. They also seemed to understand that another live bird was on the other side of the screen, not a recorded bird, researchers say. Some of the parrots learned new skills from their virtual companions, including flying, foraging and how to make new sounds.
“I was quite surprised at the range of different behaviors,” co-author Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas, an animal-computer interaction researcher at the University of Glasgow, tells the Guardian’s Hannah Devlin. “Some would sing, some would play around and go upside down, others would want to show another bird their toys.” Two weak, older macaws, for example, became very close and even called out to one another “Hi! Come here! Hello!” from their respective screens.
The birds forged strong friendships, which researchers measured by how frequently they chose to call the same individual. Parrots who initiated the highest number of video calls also received the most calls, which suggests a “reciprocal dynamic similar to human socialization,” per the statement.
The experiment also brought parrots and humans closer together—on both sides of the screen. Some birds were even reported to have developed attachments to the human caretakers of their virtual friends.
Video chatting can’t replace the social interactions that would occur in the wild, but it may be a viable option for improving the lives of parrots that are already in captivity, the researchers note. In addition, it may be beneficial for birds that cannot interact in person. Pet parrots are highly susceptible to a deadly disease called avian ganglioneuritis, which can make it dangerous for human owners to plan in-person parrot playdates.
As for other parrot owners, the researchers caution it might not be wise to suddenly begin launching FaceTime or Zoom chats on behalf of their pets. The study involved experienced parrot handlers who had the time and energy to keep tabs on their birds’ behavior—at the first sign of fear, aggression, disinterest or discomfort, they ended the calls. As the study’s authors note in the statement, “unmediated interactions could lead to fear [or] even violence and property damage.”
“We were really careful about training the birds’ caregivers thoroughly to ensure that they could offer an appropriate level of support to empower their parrots but also help them avoid any negative experiences,” says study co-author Rébecca Kleinberger, a humanics and voice technology researcher at Northeastern University, in a University of Glasgow statement.
Still, the researchers learned an important lesson from the study. If taught how to use video chat technologies to communicate with fellow birds, pet parrots will do so in “very individual and very beautiful ways,” as Hirskyj-Douglas tells the New York Times’ Emily Anthes.