Friday Grey Matters: Parrots Have Individualized Calls For Offspring

i-6b0ccd73f9eac13bf5beb8b14176bb2b-SpectacledParrotlet(JB).jpg 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.

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Last week I came across an interesting press release on a strange phenomenon: vocal 'naming' of parrot chicks by their mothers. At the time of that posting I hadn't come across the primary journal article, but a few commenters were kind enough to point me in the direction of this paper by Wanker…
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While not making the exact same claim R. Wanker does have a paper in Animal Behaviour 2005, vol. 70 (1), pp. 111-118 with the following abstract:

Although there is increasing evidence that signalling animals can refer to objects external to themselves, only weak evidence exists that nonhuman animals use referential signals for different social companions. We tested whether spectacled parrotlets use different acoustic signals for different family members. We recorded two parrotlets interacting with one another during spatial but not visual separation. Discriminant function analysis of the acoustic cues of calls revealed high similarities between calls when both the individual and the interacting partner were loaded together as grouping variables. In playback experiments, the parrotlets were tested with contact calls of a family member recorded during interaction with the tested bird and with calls of the same stimulus bird recorded during interaction with another family member. The birds responded more often to calls uttered in their presence than to calls uttered in the presence of another family member. This suggests that spectacled parrotlets use contact calls to refer to a social companion and thus are labelling or naming their conspecifics. Spectacled parrotlets may thus have mental representations of their social companions, an important ability to live within their complex social system.

Got it! Thanks for pointing me to that. I just noticed that Animal Behavior wouldn't be listed in PubMed, so makes sense it didn't show up. I'll take a look and update this post later.

Dr. Wanker is a researcher at the Universty of Hamburg. On his department's web site there is a PDF available of a newspaper report from March 2007 in the Sueddeutscher Nachrichtung (a highly respectable newspaper!) on this research. It would appear that the research is still in progress which might explain why there is no peer review journal report available yet. Dr. Wanker has an impressive list of publications on animal behaviour (mostly with parrots) going back to the beginning of the 1990s so it would appear to be straight up. Hope this is of some help!

Thank you Thony! More good info to add to the follow-up post I plan to do this weekend.

"Thank you Thony! More good info to add to the follow-up post I plan to do this weekend."

Time to eat humble pie! My only excuse is that it was a long day yesterday, it was late and I was tired. We'll start with the simple mistakes first; it is of course the Sueddeutscher Zeitung (SZ) and not Nachrichtung (my own local newspaper is called Nachrichtung!). As I said I was tired! Secondly the parrot names PDF is not from the SZ at all (the next PDF on the site was from the SZ) but from "Ein Herz fuer Tiere" a truely awful kitch animal magazin! However the rest of my post is correct. Why don't you just send Dr. Wanker an email all German academics read English if you don't run to German , his email address is wanker(at), its a tactic I've often used when something interests me and I have always received civil and helpful answers. Sorry again about the errors yesterday.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least if parrots named their chicks. You know how intelligent and social they are.

I think this is all entirely too serious!! For a diversion, why not visit my parrot's blog, SQUAWKING at

or my personal blog sometimes-2 at http//

I come from a family with several scientists and admit my tolerance for all this scientific protocal is low.

Best wishes on the PhD thing!


By the way, I'll be blogging these papers for this coming up friday's Grey Matters. :) And maybe I will email Dr. Wanker (must. keep. straight. face)

"And maybe I will email Dr. Wanker (must. keep. straight. face)"

In German Wanker is harmless, the verb to advoid is Wichsen which means to polish. In German a Wanker is a Wichser if you get what I mean!