Maybe she's born with it? Maybe it's the complex interplay between genes and environment.

There is no doubt that there is a genetic component to most body language, or pretty much any behavior of any species. Even something as complex and new as computer programming has genetic components. We are obviously not born with knowledge on how to program computers; I've worked with colleagues that didn't even know how to copy and paste. However, in order to learn how to program you need to be born with a certain set of traits - hands, for example. And a brain able to make certain connections. And many other things largely controlled by genes. But those aren't enough, or we'd all be pro code monkeys. You also need to be in a certain enivonment to learn how to use these innate assets for crunching code. Nature and nurture.

4.3 NATURE OR NURTURE?

UnderstandingParrotsVitText_edited.png

Macaws have evolved for millions of years to be able to crack open nuts using their gripping feet, incredibly strong beak and impressively dexterious tongue. That does not mean they're experts right out of the egg, as young Aztec very clearly demonstrates with his... Somewhat miscalculated toe placement, here. Given the opportunity to practice, he'll modify his behavior, learn to keep those pesky toes in check and soon become a nut cracking pro. Photo credit: Lee Stone, ParrotLife international. 

We definitely see some species typical behavior in different parrot species, as you will recall from part 1. Keep in mind that "parrot" unlike "dog" is the name of an entire order of animals. The different parrots we see are not breeds, but entirely different species. They have evolved in different wild habitats spanning all over the southern hemisphere for millions of years.

With this in mind, thinking about parrots as a group isn't all bad; they share a lot of behavioral similarities. Just like how they share a lot of physical similarities, but we can still differentiate an african grey from a blue fronted amazon. We can even differentiate a blue fronted amazon from an orange winged amazon, but the differences are often more subtle because these species are more closely related and have evolved in similar habitats. The same can be said about the behavioral differences - we definitely see trends of certain behaviors, tendencies and movement patterns occurring more or less or in different families (amazon parrots, macaws) of parrot species, as well as some more subtle differences between the individual species.

The wild range of parrots. This includes everything from deserts to rain forests and alpine environments. All these different habitat demand different physical and behavioral adaptations. 

Different parrot species can live in radically different contexts in the wild. We can find them in huge flocks of thousands of individuals in the vast, dry australian outback and in small family groups in the dense south american rain forest. Parrots have different diets, different social dynamics, different mating strategies and are subjected to different threats. So while parrots do show a lot of variability in their behavior even within a species, their evolutionary history definitely influences their behavioral tendencies. It is beyond the scope of this resource provide more detailed information about the behavior of all the almost 400 different parrot species, but I want this to serve as a reminder that being familiar with the natural history of the species you are working with is very important for many reasons; interpreting their behavior being one.


As an example, let's look at talking and mimicking.
There are a myriad of studies on how song birds learn their songs. Some species seem to be more or less hatched with knowledge on what a "good song" is for that species, and they can produce it even without ever listening to a member of their own species. Others need to hear adult birds sing in order to learn and practice - if they don't they tend to produce a weird, gibberish version of "proper" song for that species. In other words, the same kind of behavior can have very different genetic components and be aquired in different ways in different species.

Let's look at parakeets (or budgies, Melopsittacus undulatus) and african greys as examples. They have very different social structures in the wild, and tend to learn- and use their mimicking abilities differently. Any pet parakeet enthusiast will tell you that if you want a bird that talks, you need to get a male, and this is supported by studies on vocal learning in budgies. (Please note: talking ability on it's own should never be the basis for taking on the care of a parrot, and as a general rule parrots should not be kept alone.) This is at least partially because male parakeets "talk" or produce their learned sounds mostly in the context of courtship.


In contrast, we don't tend to see any major sex differences in mimicking in African greys and many other species. They often start picking up new sounds well before they are sexually mature, and they don't seem to use these sounds for courtship or reproductive purposes. People living or working with grey parrots can often attest to their ability to use certain sounds in more often in a certain context, and research supports this. My female will often preceed me by saying "sorry, what did you say?" when I am on the phone and didn't quite catch what the other person was saying; most likely picking up on body language cues I'm not even aware of making. I will hear "byyye!" when I start putting my shoes on, and when I am in the kitchen I will often hear the sounds my microwave oven makes, well before I've started using it.

Aside from a few species-typical sounds like begging and alarm calls, most parrots species seem to hatch out of the egg almost as blank slates when it comes to vocal abilities. This means that most of their vocal repertoir is learned, but species specific genetic differences lay down the foundation for what types of sounds they learn and when, why and how they use them. Vocal learning in parrots is a fascinating subject to me exactly because of the fact that there appears to be very different mechanisms and functions at play in different species; from the duetting of amazon parrot pairs to the "nicknames" parrotlets use to call each other. So even when there is a lot of learning involved, as definitely is the case in mimicking - when and what you learn and in which context you repeat what you learn definitely seems to have highly genetic components.


This is just one example out of many of how the natural history of a species can help provide us with a larger context - the bigger picture - for our interpretations of parrot behavior.

References

Bradbury & Thorsten, The functions of vocal learning in parrots

Behav Ecol Sociobiol, 2016, 70; 293–312

Giret, N. et al., Context-related vocalizations in African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus).

acta ethologica, 2012, 15; 39–46

Striedter et al., Male vocal imitation produces call convergence during pair bonding in budgerigars, Melopsittacus undulatus

Animal Behaviour, 2000, 59; 1209-1218

Recommended introductory reading on the natural history of parrots:


Bond & Diamond, Thinking like a parrot, perspectives from the wild
The university of chicago press, 2019

Toft & Wright, Parrots of the wild, a natural history of the world's most captivating birds

University of california press, 2015