German researchers at the University of Hamburg claim to have documented that some parrots seem to give their offspring (but not their mates) individual “names,” in the form of a distinctive call which is different for each of their chicks.
The studies were inspired by observations in the spectacled parrotlet’s natural habitat in Colombia. There, researchers from Hamburg noted that individual parrots seemed to respond to specific calls that other parrots in the same flock ignored.
‘A mother bird had the uncanny ability to utter a cry that would result in her chick returning to the nest immediately amidst the cacophany of the other parrots all around,’ Wanker recalls.
‘It was obvious that the baby knew it was being called,’ he says.
At the Hamburg lab, studies showed that these name equivalents are fractional cries lasting between 90 and 120 milliseconds.
Such ‘naming’ phenomenon is not unique to birds; it has been noticed in macaques (who have distinctive alarm calls which vary with the threat) and dolphins. In the study with the parrots, parent birds and chicks were placed in sepeate cages within earshot of each other, but not in direct view. The birds’ calls were recorded and later played back for the birds, and their resposes were noted. Certain calls reliably caused particular chicks to seek out the mother, and these calls were different for different chicks.
While this result is quite interesting, I searched for a peer-reviewed paper and wasn’t able to find it in PubMed or by Google, so I can’t really comment on the findings further. I always get a bit dubious when press releases come before published data, but seems like this occured at a zoo rather than a research institution, so perhaps that have something to do with it.