Before a green-rumped parrotlet is even able to chirp and squawk, mom and dad teach it a distinct series of sounds used by parrots to recognize a specific individual. In short, they give their nestling a name.
Researchers have observed captive parrots using so-called contact calls to identify mates and family members, but didn’t know how birds were named in the wild. Maybe they didn’t learn from their parents, but had contact calls hard-wired from birth. Or maybe it was an aberration of captivity.
To find out, Cornell University ornithologist Karl Berg and his team swapped eggs between nests in a wild parrotlet population they’d studied since 1987. Half the parrotlet pairs raised foster chicks, who used the contact calls demonstrated by their adoptive parents. Were the calls hard-wired, they’d have used their biological parents’ calls.
Among other animals known to imitate the sounds of others and give each other unique names are dolphins and humans (and, possibly, whales.) Like humans and dolphins, parrots are highly social. Using names makes it easier to keep track of relationships and individuals.
“One developmental milestone is when infants begin to relate adult sound patterns to specific meanings,” wrote Berg’s team, who described their findings July 13 Proceedings of The Royal Society B. “Among these sounds, an individual’s own name is one of the earliest adult words for which infants show evidence of acoustic pattern recognition. Our study suggests that at least a moderately convergent process may occur in parrots.”