News FocusBehavioral Ecology

Why Do Parrots Talk? Venezuelan Site Offers Clues

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Science  22 Jul 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6041, pp. 398-400
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6041.398

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The world's longest-running study of wild parrots is entering its 24th year, making it the parrot equivalent of Jane Goodall's long-term study of chimpanzees in Tanzania and Cynthia Moss's elephant project in Kenya. And just as those studies tracking individual animals changed our understanding of chimpanzees and elephants, this one is opening new windows into the minds and behaviors of parrots. Researchers have discovered details of the parrotlets' ecology and life histories, and the project has now entered a new phase focusing on their communicative skills. Last week, researchers reported that the contact calls of wild parrotlet nestlings—vocalizations that function much like a name—are not genetically programmed. Instead, they learn these calls from their parents, almost like human children learning their names. It is the first study to provide experimental evidence for learned vocalizations in wild parrots.