Amazons Go To School


It’s hardly surprising that scientists have been researching Amazon parrots. These birds are likely to draw attention due to their chatty, sociable nature and expressive body language. Fortunately, new Amazon study gives insights into their intellect and communication abilities — two of the characteristics that make these parrots so appealing — as well as reliable facts on how we may help keep them happy, whether in a breeding or domestic situation.

Are You Talking To Me?

Many of us associate Amazons with chatting, singing, and whistling. They seem to be pretty adept at making a lot of noise. Much recent study has focused on their vocalization habits and skills in the wild. One of the most remarkable elements of wild Amazon vocalization is that groups acquire separate languages and oral traditions, which is a rare, if not unique, phenomenon among birds and other animals.

Harvard researcher Michael Schindlinger discovered that the vocalizations of two populations of yellow-headed Amazons just around 80 miles apart were so distinct that they formed wholly independent languages. Other populations who were geographically nearby spoke differing but recognizable dialects.

The distinct traits of each group’s vocalizations allow for the identification of the origins of a wild-caught Amazon based on the sounds it makes. Schindlinger’s results suggest that newborns begin acquiring their community’s vocabulary shortly after leaving the nest. Schindlinger just received a recording of a specific group of Amazons from 1961. He was able to identify typical vocalizations still used by the community decades later after comparing it to contemporary vocalizations from this group.

Many of us share our homes with birds that seem to like the sounds of their own voices, appearing as content to replicate the squeak of a moving desk chair or the rush of the shower as a welcome from a favorite human. According to studies, many psittacine species (such as African greys and budgerigars) often duplicate the sounds of other species, but Amazons in the wild seem to prefer to concentrate their imitation talents on other Amazons.

“They appear to spend more time singing and have considerably more sophisticated vocalizations than other parrot species,” Schindlinger observed. “They have a tremendously exaggerated tune,” he says, “that nearly sounds like jazz saxophone.”

What are the Amazons attempting to express with all this energy spent on vocalizations? It’s an intriguing issue that deserves further investigation. Schindlinger hypothesized that the goal of all the complicated Amazon discourse is more than just communication (i.e., to indicate location, emotion or intent). “Three distinct kinds of Amazons, in numbers increasing into the hundreds, would converge in one place for an evening chorus of happy sounds,” Schindlinger recounted.

Other studies have revealed that yellow-headed Amazons aren’t the only birds with a long oral history. Yellow-naped Amazons establish their own dialects, and Wright and Dorin (2001) studied the reactions of mated yellow-naped couples to playback of cries in their own dialect and new dialects. The recordings were of “pair duets,” which are the vocalizations of an Amazon couple. The birds’ responses were strongest when the audio were in their native language. When the Amazons heard the familiar language, they advanced toward the speakers and sometimes screamed, a sound associated with hostility.

According to the findings, Amazons realize that a familiar song might imply a danger to their region, eliciting a desire to protect their territory. One potential reason for the reaction is because if the individual vocalizing is acquainted with the local dialect, it is likely familiar with the local environment and hence in a better position to take over territory — such as a nesting place.

Living The Legend

Amazon newborns, like human babies, seem to be designed to absorb the language and dialect spoken wherever they grow up. Rachel Berwick and Sue Farlow took advantage of the birds’ proclivity to reenact a historical narrative.

The narrative describes how Alexander von Humboldt, an 18th-century explorer, encountered a Carib Indian community whose pet parrots spoke a different dialect than their owners. The Caribs explained that the birds had belonged to the Maypure tribe, which had been wiped off. The parrots were the language’s sole living speakers.

Berwick and Farlow bought a juvenile blue-fronted Amazon and an orange-winged Amazon and raised them in a Maypure-only habitat. Dr. Irene Pepperberg uses the same model/rival strategy with Alex and other African greys as Farlow does. The birds were shown a human trainer praising a human “student” for properly employing Maypure terms, which encouraged the birds to use the same vocabulary and get comparable incentives. The birds eventually started conversing in Maypure. The team created an aviary with semi-transparent walls to showcase the parrots in several cities, allowing listeners to hear the birds speak Maypure but only see them in shadow.

Busy Equals Happy

Recent research focusing on how the ideal environment might assist their psittacine buddies may not surprise an experienced Amazon owner. Essentially, research backs up the claims of many devoted bird owners. An fascinating setting, meaningful activity, the companionship of people, and a safe house are all crucial for their parrots’ quality of life, and a lack of these elements may be detrimental. An intriguing side aspect is that many of the insights revealed by these research apply to people as well.

Several research have been conducted to identify which variables diminish or promote stereotypies, which are meaningless and repeated behaviors. Human stereotypies include rocking, pacing, and hand waving, among other activities identified in autistic adults and children.

Caged animals often participate in stereotypies, such as a lion patrolling a zoo’s overcrowded area. In caged birds, common stereotypies include apparently innocent or amusing actions like as pacing on the perch or recurrent play with a specific object.

What about plucking feathers or screaming? According to researcher Cheryl Meehan, although feather-picking is an aberrant repeated action, it is not a real stereotypy: “Its shape and execution are not inflexible. Feather-picking is more analogous to human hair-pulling.”

The distinction between yelling and stereotyping is not as apparent. “I believe the judgment is still out on screaming,” Meehan said, noting that some loud vocalization is usual in parrot behavior. “Further investigation is required,” she stated.

Any of these recurrent habits might be a result of confinement, stress, boredom, or loneliness. Many business owners have the issue of breaking the loop of stereotypic behavior once it has started. Fortunately, scientists studying the elements that influence stereotypies in Amazons — and the Amazons who participate in their studies — are demonstrating that there are several chances to enhance these birds’ mental health.

Researchers from Purdue and the University of California, Davis (Garner, Famula, and Mench) studied variables that influence self-destructive behavior, such as screaming and feather-picking, as well as less upsetting stereotypies in a group of orange-winged Amazons last year. Unsurprisingly, they discovered that a lack of neighbors to connect with might cause stereotypic behavior. Cage location seemed to be important in feather-picking; birds that could see a doorway where humans would come and exit were more likely to feather pick the closer their cages were to the entrance. Female birds were also found to be more inclined to feather-pick, according to the study. They linked feather plucking to human trichotillomania, or hair-pulling.

The study’s findings suggest that the tendency to select feathers may have a hereditary component. This might be good news since it means it may be feasible to create parrots without this inclination.

Peer Pressure

A UC Davis research (Meehan, Garner, and Mench, 2003) employed orange-winged Amazons to see whether keeping birds in pairs reduced stereotypies, aggressiveness, fearfulness, and feather-picking. The findings seemed to clearly indicate the advantages of friendship on the mental health of the birds. Parrots kept in pairs spent more time playing, walking, climbing, and flying, but parrots kept alone were less active and spent more time preening.

After a year, more than half of the separately housed parrots acquired stereotypies, while none of the paired parrots did. The paired parrots were also less afraid of, and aggressive against, unknown handlers, as well as less afraid of novel things.

Will Work For Food

Another recent UC Davis research offered validation for any parrot owner who has ever stated that habitat enrichment minimizes feather-picking (Meehan, Millam and Mench, 2002). The researchers discovered less feather-picking in orange-winged Amazons that had plenty of opportunities to hunt for food (for example, collecting goodies from a basket rather than plucking them from a dish) and enjoyed a complicated and fascinating cage arrangement with acrobatic toys. Furthermore, providing an enhanced habitat to birds that had not previously had the chance seemed to help reverse their feather-picking behavior.

There’s no need to feel ridiculous or ashamed if you attempted to conceal an almond in a kale leaf, overspent on bird toys, or taken other measures to make your parrot’s habitat more enjoyable. “I got my cues from the behavior of wild parrots,” Meehan said of her studies. “These actions were such a crucial part of a wild Amazon’s day… failure to execute these behaviors may have a detrimental influence on growth and wellbeing.”

According to conventional thinking, parrot owners should keep their birds entertained by switching toys on a regular basis. This argument was supported by UC Davis researchers (Fox and Millam, 2003). The researchers investigated the impact of changing two things in the cages of orange-winged Amazons five times a week and discovered that the birds that had their toys switched on a regular basis exhibited reduced neophobia (fear of new objects). To eat a delicious dish of nuts and apple, the birds had to face close closeness to an unusual item.

The findings showed that parrots that had their toys replaced on a regular basis took an average of six minutes to approach the rewards, compared to ten minutes for the others. (Some things, such as a plush pink elephant, a shower puff, and a dark plastic box, were just too frightening for the birds to approach, according to the researchers.)

The research also discovered that hand-rearing newborns had no long-term influence on neophobia. Only until the age of 6 months did human-reared newborns display less neophobia than parent-reared babies, but at the age of a year, there was no discernible difference. This study backs up the findings of academics like Meehan. “Probably the most essential thing that owners can do for their companions is to provide the ideal atmosphere for a parrot,” she said. “It is just as critical as good nourishment and veterinary treatment.”

Future Directions

“I believe looking at the consequences of flying on the behavioral development of parrots would be a really intriguing avenue of study,” Meehan said. Schindlinger was also interested in this topic, claiming that the most significant difference between the lives of wild and companion parrots was extensive flight. “Flying gives wild parrots exercise, and they appear to love it,” he stated. “Every day, they fly several kilometers between their home territory and the shared roost location.”

Schindlinger hypothesized that because physical activity is so strongly associated with preventing depression in humans, exercise, or lack thereof, might play the same role in the emotional health of parrots.

Overall, the study is good news for Amazon owners and breeders. Give your birds the companionship, stimulation, and security they require, and they will thrive.

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