Parrots Name Their Chicks

Emily Upton 5
parrotToday I found out that parrots name their chicks.

Scientists have known for a while that, in addition to saying things like “Polly want a cracker” (see Bonus Facts below) to entertain humans, parrots appear to vocalize their own names. What was a mystery until a few years ago was if those names were innate, meaning the chicks teach other parrots their own name, or if they were named by other parrots and then learned the sounds to identify themselves. A National Geographic research team headed by then doctoral student Karl Berg researched the green-rumped parrot and found that it is, in fact, the parents naming the chicks, rather than the chicks coming up with their own names.

In the experiment, the research team set up hidden cameras and audio recorders in 17 different nests of wild green-rumped parrots in Guarico, Venezuela.

Eight of the 17 nests were controls: the parent parrots laid eggs and raised their own children like they normally would. The other nine nests had their eggs swapped out and different eggs were given to different parents.  Why is this important?  Because there are strong name similarities within a particular family and group.  So if they were switched and the sounds for their names were genetically inspired, rather than given to the chicks, the similarity should disappear.   It was a sort of “nature vs. nurture” experiment.

As for the results, indeed, the names of the switched chicks were similar to the names of the parents raising the chicks rather than their biological parents, and the names of all the chicks in a particular nest were likewise kindred.

Much more demonstrative is that the research showed that parents named their chicks before the baby parrots could utter a sound, so the chicks really didn’t have much to say about it.

The research also evinced that the chicks learn their names within a few weeks of hatching and begin to mimic the sound.

Parrots aren’t the only creatures to name their children, though it is a rarity in the animal kingdom. In addition to humans, dolphins are also known to have individual names. Scientists believe that names come in handy in dolphins’ more sophisticated social structure. When a dolphin is lost, the pod can call the dolphin’s name so that the lost dolphin can find them again.

As for parrots, they aren’t certain about how naming parrot chicks helps the species in the wild, but they do have a few theories. For instance, it’s possible that naming their chicks makes it easier to find them in large flocks as they fly long distances to communal foraging sites. They need to keep track of each other because green-rumped parrotlets are dependent upon their parents for a relatively long time in comparison with other creatures. Three weeks after they officially leave the nest, they still rely on mom and dad for food. Getting lost during that time could mean starvation. So, much like a mother calling a child who might have gotten lost in the grocery store or at an amusement park, parrots might need to call their children home for dinner.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Nabisco originally released the saltine cracker in 1876.  Their slogan for this new type of cracker was “Polly wants a cracker?”, which is where that saying came from. Saltine crackers were mildly successful after being released, but received a huge boost in popularity thanks to the Great Depression.  Saltines were a nice, cheap, tasty filler to add to other foods such as watery soup, to make the meal more filling.
  • Parrots typically have large brains in comparison to their bodies and, as previously mentioned, a long “nesting” time. Human “nesting” time, of course, isn’t even on the charts in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom, but it’s possible that we have more in common with parrots than we thought.  For instance, the baby green-rumped parrots will sometimes “tweak” their given name before using it for the rest of their life. This practice isn’t uncommon among humans, with people deciding to shorten their name, go by a nickname, or change their name altogether.
  • Green-rumped parrots usually lay between 5 and 7 eggs. Once laid, the eggs take about 18 days to hatch and it’s about five more weeks before the birds are considered fledglings.
  • Adult green-rumped parrots are roughly 4.8 inches long and weigh just 23 grams. While both males and females are bright green in colour with pinkish coloured bills, the male can be distinguished by a bright blue patch on his wings, while the female will sometimes have a yellow mark on her forehead.
  • In a study of dolphins’ naming system, dolphins responded to a synthetic representation of their own name in 2/3 cases, while some would also respond to names of other dolphins that they knew. However, none of the dolphins responded to the names of dolphins in different pods that they didn’t know.

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5 Comments »

  1. Guillaume Mayer November 21, 2013 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    “As for parrots, they aren’t certain about how naming parrot chicks helps the species in the wild”
    So why do we name our children then? What ridiculous habits we have!

  2. Leonardo November 29, 2013 at 4:52 am - Reply

    I wonder if crows and similar birds do this too, considering that they’re more intelligent than parrots.

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