Parrots imitate others just so they know who they're talking to

As humans, we can start a conversation with someone else and be pretty confident they will know we're talking to them. This is one of those things that's so basic we forget to even take it for granted. But this is much, much trickier for parrots — and it might explain their gift for mimicry.

After all, even if we find ourselves in a crowded room, we can always single out a particular person for conversation by walking over to them, saying their name, or — and this is really the "if all else fails option", but I've found it to be effective — shouting and gesturing like a lunatic until the other person finally gets the hint and comes over. But parrots and their relatives — including the the orange-fronted conures, a kind of parakeet found throughout much of Central America — have to get a little more creative if they want to start a conversation with a specific bird in the flock.

Parakeets live in what's known as a "network environment," which means lots of different flocks constantly meshing together. While some parrot species seem to have developed "names" for other individuals, in which they use very specific bird calls to indicate they're talking to one parrot in particular, that isn't an option for the orange-fronted conures, who interact with hundreds of birds each week.

If you're a parrot — in which case, congratulations on being able to read and operate the internet — then the smart thing to do in this situation would be to come up with one particular call for yourself, rather than hundreds of different address calls for every other parrot in your flock. That's exactly what the orange-fronted conures do, and this is where the parrot's preternatural gift for imitation comes into play.

In order to start a conversation with a specific bird, a parrot simply mimics that bird's own personal contact call. According to Danish researchers, orange-fronted conures responded significantly quicker in both lab and wild environments when addressed with an imitation of their own call. It's a rather remarkable idea that each parrot has to mimic someone else if they want to talk to them, particularly if you translated the notion to humans.

As amusing as it is to imagine humans constantly doing bad impressions of each other — and let's be honest, this is humans we're talking about, the impressions will be bad — that actually might not be the best comparison. After all, the alternative, in which each bird comes up with hundreds of address calls, is more like the human equivalent of start conversations with other people with descriptive addresses like "You there with the baseball cap and the blue eyes and the bad acne!", whereas the conures' contact calls might be more like each person giving themselves a nickname, then expecting to be addressed by that nickname.

The point, I think, is that we should model human interaction on parrots, because it would be hilarious, and possibly lead to fistfights. For another, slightly more scientific takeaway, let's go to researcher Dr. Thorsten Balsby of the University of Aarhus:

"Many species of parrots live part of the year in flocks. Living in flocks may be challenging and require a flexible vocalization system. The vocal imitation of orange-fronted conures is probably tightly linked to the fission-fusion flock dynamics that results in frequent encounters and interactions with many different individuals. In natural interactions, orange-fronted conures continue to imitate each other after they have established contact. The function of these prolonged imitative interactions is not known yet but may be related to some kind of negotiation regarding the decision to make a flock fuse with another flock."

PLoS ONE via BBC News. Image by PolkoChan on Flickr.