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Imitation guides important social decisions among parrots

Parrots are known for their remarkable ability to imitate, and they even replicate the signaling calls of other individuals during vocal interactions. 

A team of researchers at the University of Copenhagen has determined that this rapid vocal matching has an influence on important social dynamics including flock formation. 

The results of the study suggest that we have been overlooking a key component to understanding the function of vocal imitation in parrots. A single vocal interaction seems to influence whether or not parrots decide to fuse with another flock based on the quality of the individual that produces the vocalization. 

“By using a novel experimental design, we were able to gain valuable insights in the flock decisions of a social parrot, the orange-fronted conure, Eupsittula canicularis,” explained study first author Heidi M. Thomsen.

“We conducted a field experiment in which flocks of wild orange-fronted conures were attracted to two loudspeakers simulating two orange-fronted conures engaged in a contact call interaction.”

“During the interaction, one simulated individual would act as the leader by calling first, followed by the other individual. We specifically tailored the playback so the contact calls of the follower would imitate those of the leader. The listening wild flocks could now decide to fly after either the leader or the follower to fuse with it.”

The study revealed that the parrots chose to follow vocal leaders more often than vocal followers during fusions. 

“Furthermore, flocks responded with higher call rates and matched the stimulus calls closer when subsequently choosing a vocal leader. Interestingly, orange-fronted conures also showed higher contact call rates and closer matches when choosing males over females,” wrote the study authors.

“These results suggest that paying attention to conspecific contact call interactions can provide individuals with social information that can be utilized during fission and fusion events, significantly influencing the social dynamics of orange-fronted conures.”

Thomsen said that while it is not yet known why leaders are preferred, the findings indicate that orange-fronted conure flocks rely on eavesdropping on vocal interactions to infer the relative quality of unfamiliar individuals.

“While orange-fronted conures frequently engage in contact call imitation during vocal interactions with conspecifics, we here illustrate that vocal imitation also has implications for potential third party listeners.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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