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11-28-2023

Monk parakeets have different voice ‘accents’ that mirror humans

A recent study led by Stephen Tyndel, a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior, has revealed fascinating insights into the communication patterns of monk parakeets, an invasive parrot species in Europe. The research focuses on the development of unique dialects among these birds, mirroring the regional linguistic variations found in human populations.

Europe is home to no native parrot species. Despite that significant fact, several species, including the monk parakeet, have established thriving populations after escaping from the pet trade.

Originating from South America, these parakeets are now abundant in numerous European countries. They stand out for their highly flexible vocal abilities, capable of imitating and learning new sounds throughout their lives.

Studying monk parakeet voices

To explore the possibility of regional dialects among monk parakeets, the researchers recorded these birds in eight cities across Spain, Belgium, Italy, and Greece. The aim was to determine if parrot calls varied not only between different cities but also within them, across various parks.

Stephen Tyndel explains, “Monk parakeets are the perfect test tube for studying how complex communication evolves in a species other than our own.” The study, employing a novel statistical method, found that monk parakeets indeed have distinct dialects in each city.

Simeon Smeele is a co-lead author of the study and an affiliate scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Smeele notes significant differences in the frequency modulation structure of contact calls. This is particularly challenging for human detection.

However, within individual cities, no dialectical variations were observed between different parks. “This suggests that parrot dialects separated early when birds invaded European cities, but then didn’t significantly change further over this time period,” Tyndel adds.

Implications and surprises

The research outcomes were unexpected. Tyndel reflects on the formation of dialects, suggesting they could result from a passive process where small errors in copying calls lead to gradual differences between cities. Alternatively, initial differences might have been maintained over time.

The team also considers the possibility of active processes shaping dialects for social communication purposes. This would include recognizing group mates within highly clustered nest environments. Smeele proposes, “We think that dialects could be used to communicate who is part of what nest cluster, like a password.”

Monk parakeets and future research

The next step for the research team involves understanding how individual monk parakeets learn from each other. In addition, if smaller groups exhibit distinct dialects within the same park. This exploration will deepen our understanding of parrot communication and shed light on the broader context of complex communication in both humans and animals.

As Tyndel concludes, “This will add to our understanding of parrot communication and provide insights into the ways in which complex communication is linked to the complex social lives of humans and animals.”

More about European monk parakeets

Monk parakeets, a species native to South America, have become an increasingly common sight in various European countries. Their journey from rare pets to established wild populations provides a unique perspective on wildlife adaptation and urban ecology.

Origin and introduction

Originally from the temperate and subtropical regions of South America, monk parakeets are known for their distinctive green plumage and sociable nature.

The monk parakeet’s presence in Europe began primarily through the pet trade. Escapes and intentional releases by pet owners in the late 20th century led to the formation of feral populations across the continent.

Spread across Europe

These birds have established significant populations in countries like Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. They are particularly prevalent in urban and suburban areas, where they find ample food and nesting opportunities.

Despite originating from a warmer climate, monk parakeets have shown remarkable adaptability to the varied European climates. They thrive even in regions with colder temperatures.

Ecological impact

In their new European habitats, monk parakeets compete with native birds for food and nesting sites. Their robust nature often gives them an advantage in these competitions.

Environmentalists express concerns about the potential impact of these invasive birds on local ecosystems and biodiversity.

Behavior and communication

Monk parakeets are highly social, living in large, noisy colonies. They build intricate communal nests, which are often reused year after year.

As mentioned above, recent studies have revealed that European populations of monk parakeets have developed unique vocal dialects. This indicates a high level of adaptability and learning in new environments.

Challenges and management

Several European countries have initiated efforts to control monk parakeet populations, ranging from nest removal to more comprehensive management plans.

The management of monk parakeets raises legal and ethical questions, balancing conservation efforts with animal welfare concerns.

In summary, the story of monk parakeets in Europe is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of wildlife. It also serves as a reminder of the complex consequences of human interference in natural ecosystems.

As these vibrant birds continue to make their mark on European landscapes, ongoing research and informed management strategies will be crucial in addressing the challenges they pose.

The full study was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

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