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Feathered FaceTime: Why Parrots Are Making Video Calls

There’s no denying the mood-boosting power of a video chat with friends or loved ones. When a face-to-face conversation isn’t possible, a quick FaceTime or Zoom call can be an excellent antidote to loneliness. This seems like a uniquely human way of dealing with social isolation. But wouldn’t it be nice if our parrots could benefit from virtual interactions, too? 

Recent research suggests they can! A study published this spring set out to teach parrots how to engage in video calls with each other, and the findings stand to change the way we think about parrot socialization. 

Fighting Loneliness in Parrots

Though it’s clear that loneliness isn’t good for parrots, new science continually underscores just how important socialization is for our feathered friends. Mental and behavioral impacts from social isolation are quite prominent.

Stressed parrots often display “stereotypes,” which are repetitive, abnormal behaviors like pacing and feather-plucking. But loneliness can have deep biological impacts as well. One study found that chronic loneliness in African greys can increase aging on a cellular level. 

What can we do to alleviate our parrot’s loneliness? It’s not always as simple as spending more time with our birds or encouraging them to interact with their flockmates. In the wild, parrots have a great deal of autonomy when it comes to building and navigating their social circles. They choose which parrots to spend time with and how long to spend with them. Despite our best efforts, it’s difficult to give our parrots a similar level of agency at home.

Can Parrots Place Video Calls? 

Researchers from Northeastern University, MIT, and the University of Glasgow teamed up to address this issue. If humans can make use of video calling to decide how and when to spend time with friends, why can’t parrots? 

The idea sounds great on paper, but the researchers faced many potential hurdles. Would the parrots be able to use phone and tablet screens designed for human eyes? Would they understand that these were real, living parrots on the other end of the call, not just moving images? Would they even be interested at all?

How the Experiment Worked

The only way to answer these questions was to forge ahead. The scientists established a group of 18 parrots whose owners volunteered to be in the study. Many different species participated, including ruby macaws, African greys, cockatiels, and Quaker parrots. 

The birds participated remotely from their own homes. Their owners set up phones or tablets in front of perches, allowing the parrots to move toward or away from the screen at will. First, the parrots were taught to ring a bell and touch a photo of another parrot on the device’s screen to initiate a video call. During this part of the study, the birds were encouraged by their owners and rewarded with treats when they successfully made calls.

Three of the parrots seemed uninterested or uncomfortable and dropped out of the experiment. 15 parrots continued to the second phase, during which they were free to make calls on their own. Their owners didn’t reward them with treats during calls, and they were limited to two short calls per day. This part of the experiment was the real test: with limited human motivation, would the birds continue using the video calling system?

What Happened? 

The answer, for the most part, was a resounding yes. Most birds placed at least one call when they were given the option to do so, and some even placed the maximum number of calls every day. Additionally, the more incoming calls a parrot received, the more outgoing calls they were likely to place. In other words, a parrot’s enthusiasm for calls seemed to rub off on other group members! 

The observations made by owners were even more interesting. Parrots sang, danced, preened, and played together, with one parrot showing off his toys to the bird on the other end of the call. Another parrot learned a new foraging behavior that his owner had been trying to teach him for a year; yet another began flying more frequently after watching other birds fly during calls.

The parrots weren’t just socializing, but rather learning and growing with each other. Owners frequently reported positive mood changes, saying that their birds “‘came alive’” during calls or seemed “calmer” than usual. Some owners even reported feeling closer or more bonded with their parrots as a result of the experiment.

What Can We Take Away? 

Video calling had the potential to offer our parrots an unprecedented level of agency over their social interactions. It seems that parrots can benefit in surprising and meaningful ways when they are allowed to decide who to call and when to call them. 

We’re a long way from being able to give our parrots a tablet with FaceTime and letting them use it freely. The parrots in this study required support, comfort, and encouragement from their owners to adjust to the video calling system. A small number even displayed fearful behaviors during the calls, suggesting this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to parrot loneliness. 

Still, the results are promising. As technology improves and becomes more ingrained in our day-to-day routines, it’s important to see how we can use it to improve not just our own lives, but those of our feathered family members. 

Want to know more about keeping your parrot company? The Bird Street Bistro blog has your back. Check out our guide on bonding with your parrot, or head over to our explainer on proper play. There’s always more to learn!


Works Referenced:

Kleinberger, R., Cunha, J., Vemuri, M. M., & Hirskyj-Douglas, I. (2023, April). Birds of a Feather Video-Flock Together: Design and Evaluation of an Agency-Based Parrot-to-Parrot Video-Calling System for Interspecies Ethical Enrichment. In Proceedings of the 2023 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-16).