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Study finds parrots can find friendship through video chat

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Once upon a time, Polly just wanted a cracker.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROT SQUAWKING)

BLOCK: Nowadays, Polly might want a Zoom call.

JENNIFER CUNHA: Eleanor...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

CUNHA: ...Which friend would you like to call?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Eleanor is one of 18 parrots in a recent study that asked whether video calls could help pet parrots fulfill their social needs.

CUNHA: You want to call Rosie?

Parrots are incredibly socially complex creatures. They surpass 6- and 7-year-old children in puzzle tasks and memory skills.

CHANG: That is Jennifer Cunha of Northeastern University. She co-authored the study.

CUNHA: They have high mental needs that aren't always catered to very well in companion situations.

CHANG: And pet birds of a feather shouldn't always flock together, according to another lead researcher, Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas from the University of Glasgow.

ILYENA HIRSKYJ-DOUGLAS: A very high percentage of them have diseases which can be transferred when in-person interaction takes place.

BLOCK: So Hirskyj-Douglas and Cunha got together with lead author Rebecca Kleinberger, also of Northeastern University, to see if parrots in captivity could find companionship through video calls.

CUNHA: We taught them first to ring a bell. Then the tablet would be presented.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

BLOCK: One of two images of fellow parrots would appear on a phone or tablet, and using their beaks or tongues, the parrots would choose.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

CUNHA: Who would you like to call this time?

CHANG: To see how much the parrots actually wanted to spend time on video chats, researchers measured engagement and agency.

HIRSKYJ-DOUGLAS: So how frequently they rang the parrots when the system was available and then how quickly they use the system.

CHANG: They were prepared to see negative reaction from the birds, like aggression. But, you know, instead...

CUNHA: We saw a lot of social behaviors that you would see potentially between birds that were together or in the wild - so mirroring behaviors where they might move in the same kind of way, dancing, singing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SINGING)

CUNHA: They really seem to, as one owner said, like, come alive during the calls.

REBECCA KLEINBERGER: So there is a potential of connection from animals through the screen. But there are also a lot of risk.

BLOCK: That's lead author Rebecca Kleinberger, who said her team kept the study to 18 parrots to manage those risks. They weren't sure how the birds would respond to the study. But the researchers did conclude that video calling technology could reproduce some of the social benefits of living in a flock, even between parrot species.

CHANG: And Jennifer Cunha says some of the birds still ask to chat with their pals.

CUNHA: Some of the birds continue to call each other. So I think that there's a lot of long-term potential for these kinds of relationships.

CHANG: In other words, maybe what Polly wants is a lasting friendship, even through a screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG, "COZY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Patrick Jarenwattananon