For many species of birds, vocal communication is a vital social skill which facilitates important processes such as reproduction and courtship. For songbirds, vocal communication often consists of a repertoire of songs and calls which are often at least partially learned from observing and mimicking the young bird’s parents. Many species of birds use sound to communicate without exactly “singing,” like owls who may hoot, clack their bills, screech, or make other noises in order to communicate.
No group of birds is quite as vocally complex or impressive, however, as the parrot. Famous for their incredible mimicry skills, parrots rely on vocalizations for communication in ways that may far outstrip the territorial singing of your average songbird. Now, new research suggests that the “linguistic” development of young parrotlets may involve some very familiar behaviors.
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Human babies, as we all know, are born without the ability to produce the complex speech which is so central to the lives of adult humans. From birth, and even before, babies begin the process of rapidly learning and practicing speech. Part of this process is the “babbling” sounds which babies make. Babies babble as a way of learning and developing speech. It is a critical part of infant development.
Now, researchers have found that wild parrot chicks learn to communicate by “babbling” too. The study, which focused on wild populations of green-rumped parrots in Venezuela, found that parrot chicks began to babble softly to themselves after about twenty-one days from hatching.
The study, which was accomplished by placing cameras within several nesting boxes occupied by green-rumped parrots, found that the tiny parrotlets would practice an array of sounds seemingly without the intent to communicate. The young birds would practice their vocalizations whilst their parents were gone or their siblings asleep. This indicates that the birds may be practicing for the sake of practice.
Scientists observing this parrot babbling behavior are also curious as to the role of social relationships between nestmates. Most of the young birds’ vocalizations take place when the adult birds are away. This has prompted researchers to wonder if their ever-present siblings play a role in this development process.
Bird is the Word
Because humans are universally regarded as the animal kingdom’s champion of vocal communication, it is interesting to note the ways that linguistic development in humans is matched amongst the “runners up.” Parrots are widely considered the “next best” after humans when it comes to language and mimicry. So, the fact that young parrots may undergo a very similar development process to young humans is very telling. This may indicate that early “babbling” behaviors are essential in the development of animals which can effectively communicate vocally.
Over the last several decades, the cognition of birds has been increasingly popular as the subject of study. Where mammals were once thought of as unassailable kings of cognitive development, usurpers like the humble crow have begun to make themselves known. Understanding the ways in which these overlooked geniuses think and develop is an invaluable step towards better understanding the mystery of the mind.
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