Babies don’t babble to sound cute—they’re taking their first steps on the path to learning language. Now, a study shows parrot chicks do the same. Although the behavior has been seen in songbirds and two mammalian species, finding it in these birds is important, experts say, as they may provide the best nonhuman model for studying how we begin to learn language.
The find is “exciting,” says Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Hunter College not involved with the work. Pepperberg herself discovered something like babbling in a famed African gray parrot named Alex, which she studied for more than 30 years. By unearthing the same thing in another parrot species and in the wild, she says, the team has shown this ability is widespread in the birds.
In this study, the scientists focused on green-rumped parrotlets (Forpus passerinus)—a smaller species than Alex, found from Venezuela to Brazil. The team investigated a population at Venezuela’s Hato Masaguaral research center, where scientists maintain more than 100 artificial nesting boxes.
Like other parrots, songbirds, and humans (and a few other mammal species), parrotlets are vocal learners. They master their calls by listening and mimicking what they hear. The chicks in the new study started to babble at 21 days, according to camcorders installed in a dozen of their nests. They increased the complexity of their sounds dramatically over the next week, the scientists report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Continue reading…]