If you have ever been mesmerized by a parrot’s ability to mimic sounds or words, you are not alone. Their vocal flexibility, or “voice print,” has always sparked curiosity, leading to questions about how these birds maintain their unique identity within the cacophony of flock calls.
However, recent findings by the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona might provide a clue. The secret, it appears, lies in a distinct voice print, akin to the one we humans have.
Parrots are renowned for their expansive vocal repertoire, which they can extend and modify throughout their lives. But with such dynamic vocal changes, how do they remain identifiable in a noisy flock? This conundrum led researchers to the monk parakeets of Barcelona.
Through an in-depth study, Simeon Smeele from the Max Planck Institute proposed that these birds might possess an individualized ‘voice print’ that stays consistent, irrespective of the sounds they produce.
Humans, despite their versatile vocal abilities, have always been identifiable through their unique voice tones. This voice print ensures that our vocal tract leaves a signature. Our voice makes us distinguishable even if we change what we’re saying or how we’re saying it.
It’s known that many social animals, like dolphins and bats, have specific “signature calls” that make them recognizable within their groups. Yet, unlike the broad vocal range in humans, these signature calls are often limited to one type. This revelation presented a void in understanding: could other animals possibly have a voice print like humans?
Simeon Smeele embarked on this research with a particular interest in parrots. This is mainly because they utilize their tongue and mouth to modulate calls. This modulation gives their sounds a more ‘human’ feel compared to other birds. The bustling parrot flocks in Barcelona, with their fluid membership, provided a perfect backdrop for this exploration.
With the assistance of Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona, which has identified over 3000 individual monk parakeets over 20 years, Smeele and his team recorded calls from hundreds of these birds. Their extensive collection of over 5000 vocalizations made this the largest study of individually-marked wild parrots to date.
The team then analyzed these calls to detect individual recognition patterns. They were particularly intrigued by the “contact call”, a call previously believed to be stable and unique for each bird. However, their observations revealed otherwise, hinting that another mechanism might be at play for individual recognition.
Smeele turned to a machine learning model, commonly used in human voice recognition. By training the model on “tonal” calls from specific parrots and then testing it on a different “growling” call set, the team sought to determine the consistency of the voice print. The results were promising: the model identified individual parrots three times better than random chance.
While these findings hint at the existence of a voice print in monk parakeets, the team remains cautiously optimistic. Smeele emphasizes the need for more comprehensive data and further validation. Alongside this, an ecological study is also on the horizon. In the new study, parrots will be tagged with GPS devices to understand their movements and interactions.
Juan Carlos Senar from the Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona highlights the significance of these findings. Juan Carlos says that understanding the individual discrimination of calls can shed light on the species’ unique vocal abilities.
If these parakeets indeed have a voice print, it not only answers the riddle of their vocal flexibility but could also reshape our understanding of animal communication. Smeele says the implications would go beyond parrots, too. “I hope that this finding prompts more work to uncover voice prints in other social animals that can flexibly modify their vocalization, such as dolphins and bats,” he says.
In a world filled with diverse sounds and calls, it’s fascinating to think that each voice, be it human or bird, carries its unique signature, echoing its distinct identity.
The full study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
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