Humans do it. Dolphins do it. And now it appears that parrots also give names to their children.
A new study has revealed that green-rumped parrotlets use "specific signature contact calls" to identify themselves and their family members. In other words, they have "names."
To determine how the names are derived, Karl Berg of Cornell University created an experiment looking to see if the names were created genetically or actually given by the parents in the nest. Dr. Berg switched* the eggs from two nests and, once the babies hatched, listened to see if a parrotlet's calls matched the calls of his or her biological or "adopted" parents.
If a parrotlet's calls sound like his or her biological parents then the names are encoded in their genes. On the other hand, if a chick grows-up sounding like his or her "adopted" parents, then their names must be learned.
Berg and his team used cameras and microphones to record the birds over a period of two months. The scientists then used computer software to match the chicks' individual calls to Berg's gigantic database of the local green-rumped parrot population. They found that the parrotlets' calls were most similar to their "adopted" parents. Thus, according to Berg and his team, the parrots are actually learning their names from their parents.
"The brothers and sisters had contact calls that also had something in common," Berg said. "It makes sense that, if they're learning them from the same two parents, there [would] be some similarities. The end result is that the different nestlings' [vocal signatures] are clearly unique, but it's sort of like they had the same building blocks to work with. So similarities exist at the family level."
Although it has been cited numerous times in captive studies, this amazing display of parrot communication and culture is the first time an experiment has shown that parrots learn in the wild.
"Karl's work is a step towards understanding what may prove to be one of the few communications systems on Earth that rivals our own for complexity," said Marc Dantzker, of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.
* Note: The Nonhuman Rights Project does not endorse invasive research or experimentation on captive animals. However, we do quote the results of these experiments when they help make the case that the animals have a level of sentience, self-awareness, and, in some cases, theory of mind, that demonstrates they should not be being kept in captivity in the first place.