Dr. Masello is one of a small but unabashedly enthusiastic circle of researchers who study parrots, parakeets, macaws and cockatoos. Due to their dashing good looks, and somewhat cartoon-ish demeanor, parrots are sometimes assumed to be nothing more than that.
Through a mix of rugged and often times risky field work, lab studies and a willingness to shrug off the frequent loss of expensive tracking equipment, researchers are gaining insights into the lives, minds and surprising appetites of parrots.
Parrots are the “feathered primates”
Researches and parrot fans alike would agree that these flamboyant birds are brainer than we may think. Their intelligence rivals that of chimps, dolphins, and may in fact be the only non-human being who can dance to a beat.
“We call them feathered primates,” said Irene Pepperberg, who studies animal cognition at Harvard and is renowned for her research with Alex and other African grey parrots.
“They’re very good colleagues,” said Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, who studies the Goffin’s cockatoo of Indonesia.
Dr. Auersperg and her colleagues have found that Goffin’s cockatoos are among the most spontaneously inventive toolmakers in existence, and that these birds can learn how to fashion the latest food-fetching device after just a single viewing of a master cockatoo at work.
Researching the birds in Costa Rica, it has discovered that different populations of the parrot communicate with one another in distinct dialects that remain stable over many years, just like human languages. Just as with people, young parrots can easily master multiple dialects while their elders can’t or won’t bother to do likewise.
They are incredibly adaptive and flexible
Most parrots live in the tropics or subtropics, where a mix of habitat loss and the depredations of the international pet trade now threaten a third of all species with extinction, Dr. Masello said.
At the same time, some parrot species are proving flexible to the point of invasiveness.
Monk parakeets from South America are doing nicely in New York City,” said Leo Joseph, a parrot expert and director of the Australian National Wildlife Collection in Canberra. “Peach-faced lovebirds from Africa are well-established in Arizona.”
Parrots, as we all know, have the gift of gab
This particular skill proves more than meets the eye.
Fruiting trees are a patchy and unpredictable resource, and parrots often fly many miles a day in quest of food. Under such circumstances, searching in groups turns out to be more efficient than solitary hunting, especially when group members can trade tips on promising leads.
“That can mean the development of a social system, as well as the neurological capacity to share information,” Dr. Joseph said. The vocal capacity, too: parrots call to one another continually, squawkishly, over long distances and short.
“They are communicating to each other all the time,” Dr. Masello said. “Every day, after working in the colony and climbing up the cliffs, I’m much more tired from the noise than from the climbing.”