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
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
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
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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