Thu, Mar 24, 2016 - Page 12 News List

Parrots are a lot more than ‘Pretty Bird’

Out of the cage, they speak their own language, make tools and wreak havoc on plants and researcher’s efforts alike

By Natalie Angier  /  NY Times News Service

Smarter than their caged brethren.

Photo: AP

Juan Masello never intended to study wild parrots. Twenty years ago, as a graduate student visiting the northernmost province of Patagonia in Argentina, he planned to write his dissertation on colony formation among seabirds.

But when he asked around for flocks of, say, cormorants or storm petrels, a park warden told him he was out of luck.

“He said, ‘This is the only part of Patagonia with no seabird colonies,’” recalled Masello, a principal investigator in animal ecology and systematics at Justus Liebig University in Germany. Might the young scientist be interested in seeing a large colony of parrots instead?

The sight that greeted Masello was “amazing” and “incredible,” he said. “It was almost beyond words.”

On a 160-foot-high sandstone cliff that stretched some seven miles along the Atlantic coast, tens of thousands of pairs of burrowing parrots had used their powerful bills to dig holes — their nests — deep into the rock face.

And when breeding season began not long afterward, the sky around the cliffs erupted into a raucous carnival of parrot: 150,000 crow-size, polychromed aeronauts with olive backsides, turquoise wings, white epaulets and bright red belly patches ringed in gold. Masello was hooked.

Today, Masello’s hands are covered with bite scars. He has had four operations to repair a broken knee, a broken nose — “the little accidents you get from working with parrots,” he said. Still, he has no regrets.

“Their astonishing beauty and intelligence,” Masello said, “are inspirational.”

Masello is one of a small but unabashedly enthusiastic circle of researchers who study Psittaciformes, the avian order that includes parrots, parakeets, macaws and cockatoos. For all their visual splash and cartoon familiarity, parrots have long been given scientific short shrift in favor of more amenable subjects like, say, zebra finches or blue tits.

But through a mix of rugged and sometimes risky field work, laboratory studies and a willingness to shrug off the frequent loss of expensive tracking equipment, researchers are gaining insights into the lives, minds and startling appetites of parrots.

No, Polly doesn’t want your Triscuits. Got any fig trees to savage?


Parrot partisans say the birds easily rival the great apes and dolphins in all-around braininess and resourcefulness, and may be the only animals apart from humans capable of dancing to the beat.

“We call them feathered primates,” said Irene Pepperberg, who studies animal cognition at Harvard and is renowned for her research with Alex and other African grey parrots.

“They’re very good colleagues,” said Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, who studies the Goffin’s cockatoo of Indonesia.

Many of the recent discoveries are described in a new book, Parrots of the Wild: A Natural History of the World’s Most Captivating Birds, by Catherine Toft and Timothy Wright. Others have been reported in journals or demonstrated through online videos, which have gone viral or deserve to.

Auersperg and her colleagues have found that Goffin’s cockatoos are among the most spontaneously inventive toolmakers ever described, and that the birds can learn how to fashion the latest food-fetching device after just a single viewing of a master cockatoo at work.

Studying the yellow-naped Amazon of Costa Rica, Wright and his colleagues have discovered that different populations of the parrot communicate with one another in distinct dialects that remain stable over decades, like human languages. Just as with people, young parrots can easily master multiple dialects while their elders can’t or won’t bother to do likewise.

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