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Around the Lab

How a Parrot Learns Its "Name"

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In captivity, parrots are renowned for imitating words—but how do they use this ability in the wild? Studies have shown that wild parrots utter signature calls that can serve as a “name” by which others recognize them. Now research by Cornell graduate student Karl Berg shows how a young Green-rumped Parrotlet gets its name: it learns from its parents.

At their field site in Venezuela, Berg and colleagues placed video cameras inside and outside nesting tubes to film parrotlet families—some with parents raising their natural young and others raising foster chicks. Analysis of nearly 5,000 vocalizations showed that a parrotlet’s call is not innate. The wild parrots learned by imitating the birds that raised them—whether or not they were genetically related.

Berg says the findings could have implications that will help scientists understand why vocal learning evolves in other groups, including humans. The results were published in the July 13 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Living Bird Magazine

Autumn 2011

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How do Green-rumped Parrotlets learn their "names"? Look into the lives of parrotlets, and glimpse inside their nests, as we explain the work of Karl Berg, who did this research as a graduate student at the Cornell Lab.