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New Study: Parrots Can Have "Bromances," Too

A new study explores the complex social structure of quaker parrots, revealing a few surprises along the way.

Natalie Voss

In a recently-released study from New Mexico State University and the USDA/APHIS National Wildlife Research Center, scientists explored parakeet cliques, gossip and "bromances.”

Dr. Elizabeth Hobson, now a postdoctoral fellow at National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, orchestrated the study while at New Mexico State University. She and her team studied captive and wild populations of quaker parrots/monk parakeets in order to learn more about how the birds related to each other. The research team observed the groups for three months, recording the individuals’ behavior and interactions. At the end, the scientists had learned a few things that surprised them, according to Hobson.

One element of the study examined the well-known tendency of the birds to bond closely with their mates. In fact, researchers found that pairs were a fundamental part of the parakeets’ social structure, but those pairs were not always breeding-oriented.

"It seems to be that they really prefer to form a strong bond with at least one other individual in their group, regardless of whether that bond is used for reproduction or socialization,” Hobson said. "Sometimes it’s what you would think of as a strong friendship between two males or two females. I think the popular term right now is ‘bromance.’ They’re interacting really frequently with that individual, but there’s nothing reproductive going on there.”

Some birds formed closely-bonded threesomes in a similar fashion. A minority preferred to fly solo.

Much like high schoolers in a cafeteria, the researchers also observed the birds breaking and reforming their social groups in a process called "fission and fusion.” This modeling and remodeling happens frequently — not just hour by hour, but even from minute to minute in some cases, according to Hobson. Groups that were perching or eating together would split, join with others, split again, and come back together later. But the splits weren’t always the result of a squabble — in fact, the reasons may not have been ‘personal’ at all.

"Individuals are going to differ in their motivations,” Hobson said. "If one bird is hungrier than another bird, that might be enough justification for one to stay at the nest and the other to go with a foraging group. Probably the fission and fusion is allowing them to get the resources they need, without having to worry about the predation they would if they were alone.”

Hobson and her team learned that outside those pairs and trios, the parakeets had a hierarchical organization to their group, much like other species that travel in packs or herds. The parakeets developed leaders and followers, although leaders, mid-ranking birds and followers were not very sharply defined. That type of social structure occurs across the animal kingdom, "from hermit crabs to humans,” Hobson said.

To the scientists’ surprise, it didn’t seem those groups were sharing information about food and other resources, at least not verbally — a group flying by might land by a foraging group, but often there was no calling between them. The social structure indicated by the research could also speak to a high level of intelligence in parrots (a trait that is no surprise to those who interact with them on a regular basis). We already know the birds have relatively large brains compared to their body size, but their sense of memory amidst their fission and fusion is another indicator of how smart they are. The parakeets have to remember each other during periods where they don’t see or hear one another—one of the traits used to mark intelligence in other species.

Besides noting their intelligence, Hobson said the study could have implications for owners of pet birds, as well.

Understanding more about the sociality of the birds and the underlying cognition, and how much they’re thinking about their social relationships and processing that information could be useful, according to Hobson. "It might be a good justification to take a look at pet birds and provide a little more enrichment, a little more interaction, a little bit more variation in [their] daily routine,” she said.

"Often what you’ll see in the pet world is they’ll form that strong bond with their owner,” she said. "In that case, that kind of relationship might be paralleling what they would exhibit in the wild [with another bird]. If the owners don’t want to put in the effort of that kind of bond with the parrot, it might be a good idea to have two[birds], so they don’t have to serve that social role with their pet.”

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Posted: September 22, 2014, 11:30 a.m. PDT

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New Study: Parrots Can Have "Bromances," Too

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Reader Comments
This is a very good article. Bromance sounds good to me. They can have a close buddy without being required to act out a socially acceptable romance, courtship act. Easier on the nerves, and this is also a good idea for many humans also.
William, San Francisco, CA
Posted: 9/23/2015 2:03:03 PM
Very interesting article.
Christina, Blue Springs, MO
Posted: 3/28/2015 8:21:32 AM
The Quakers have a good idea. It is important to have a good friend. The birds know that. Being alone is not good for people or birds either. By just being bonded friends, their life is easier in they do not have to hustle daily to feed the young. However, they may still could raise a family later on.
William, San Francisco, CA
Posted: 1/15/2015 7:46:23 PM
I've definitely noticed this! Boo got to help me pick out Arthur, and we visited a few other goffins before we met Arthur. It was "love at first sight" and both boys immediately buddied up to eachother.
In the past 3 years, they have bonded even more. They've had squabbles and seem to go thru phases of being closer and more interactive, and of being less interactive and less playful together. Very occasionally they fight and want nothing to do with eachother for a day or two. This roughly mirrors how my 14 year relationship with Boo has come in waves of being close vs not-close.
Jessica, St. Louis, MO
Posted: 10/15/2014 1:45:13 PM
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