Quirks & Quarks

Why are birds like parrots able to mimic sounds?

Researchers don't completely understand, but suspect its for social bonding in noisy rainforests

Researchers don't completely understand, but suspect its for social bonding in noisy rainforests

Parrots mimic sounds like human voices because they are missing similar social interactions in the rainforest home (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This week's Question comes from John Carty in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He asks:

Some species of parrots are able to very precisely imitate a wide variety of the sounds they hear around them, from human voice tones to the sound of the water dripping from a tap. What survival or adaptational advantage does this ability give them?

Karen Overall, a professor in the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of P.E.I., says the exact answer to this question is unknown, but there are clues in the evolutionary biology of parrots. Parrots live in biodiversity-rich and very noisy rainforests. 

Because of their complex family relationships, they have very discrete signals that enable them to communicate with other parrots and other species. They rely on each other for information about the location of food, as well as warnings about approaching predators. 

Monkeys, along with birds like jays, crows and ravens can mimic to communicate similar information to each other. 

When parrots are brought into households as pets, Overall suggests that they lack social interaction and the stimulation of the busy rainforest environment. To compensate they are looking for the social interaction, and this leads to mimicing human voices and household sounds.





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