Don’t call me Polly - parrots have individual ‘names’ in the wild
Most of us would admit that we’ve been amused by a parrot’s vocal talent at some point in our lives. Though entertaining, it’s perhaps hard to imagine that an ability to repeat “Pretty Polly” on demand is of much use to a parrot in the wild. But parrots don’t just mimic humans; their ability to imitate is likely to be important for maintaining their dynamic social structures. Cornell University scientists have found that parent birds pass on learned vocal signatures, a bit like human names, to their offspring. This research is the first evidence of how parrots transmit a socially acquired trait in the wild.
Vocal signatures are used to recognise individuals in a population and so far only parrots, dolphins and humans have been shown to imitate the signatures of others throughout their lives. “When one parrot imitates the signature call of another, it gets their attention and opens the door to further, more complex exchanges of information,” explains Karl Berg, a behavioural ecologist who conducted the study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
This ability could be linked to the fact that parrots have very “fluid” social systems. Wild parrots exhibit a fission-fusion type of population dynamic which means that flocks frequently break up and change. Therefore an ability to learn signatures and link them to the new individuals would be helpful. Similarities can be seen in human populations “Little in our society would function without the use of our own ‘names’ and the ability to ‘imitate’ names of others,” says Berg. Read the rest on Nature.com.