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The functions of vocal learning in parrots

Abstract

Given that both sexes of most parrots learn new vocalizations throughout life and produce them in diverse social contexts, whereas few songbird species combine all these traits, why are parrots not a better model for the evolution of human speech than songbirds? We first note the technical constraints that have limited research on wild parrot communication and then review the discoveries that have accumulated in the last two decades as constraints were overcome. Vocal learning in wild parrots appears unrelated to sexual selection and mate competition but is used by parrot pairs to defend nest sites in ways similar to those of songbirds. Where parrots differ from songbirds is in their specialization on toxic and armored foods, the consequences of this diet on foraging and social dynamics, and the use of learned vocalizations to mediate those dynamics. Parrots thus use learned vocalizations for two quite different functions, only one of which they share with songbirds (and hummingbirds). Interestingly, recent neurobiological studies have shown that parrots have dual cortical pathway nuclei for vocal learning, only one of which is present in songbirds. The parallels between the distributions of functions of vocal learning and brain nuclei suggest future research that should clarify both how and why parrots are more extensive vocal learners than songbirds and whether there are in fact parallels with humans.

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank Sandra Vehrencamp, Michelle Hall, Tim Wright, and Mukta Chakraborty for helpful suggestions and background information. Three anonymous reviewers read this long review with great care and provided many helpful suggestions to improve clarity and accuracy.

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Correspondence to Jack W. Bradbury.

Ethics declarations

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed in research performed by the authors. Our research protocols were reviewed and approved by the Cornell University IACUC (most recent Protocol 2007-0124) and by the University of Copenhagen, which enforces the Guidelines for the Treatment of Animals in Behavioral Research established by the Animal Behavior Society. In addition, the authors submitted protocols and received approval for all research in Costa Rica from the directorate of the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (most recent permit ACG-PI-035-2007). No human subjects were involved in any study undertaken by the authors.

Funding

Original research by the two authors of this review (including personal observations) was supported by the National Science Foundation of the United States (IBN 02-290271 to JWB), the Steno-Stipend program (272-06-0272 to TJSB), and Framework programs of the Danish Council for Independent Research (272-07-0477 and 10-08484 to colleague Torben Dabelsteen). All other citations in this review involve research undertaken by other authors and published separately.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

Communicated by P. M. Kappeler

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Bradbury, J.W., Balsby, T.J.S. The functions of vocal learning in parrots. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70, 293–312 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2068-4

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Keywords

  • Parrots
  • Vocal learning
  • Mimicry
  • Songbirds
  • Detoxification
  • Territorial defense
  • Fission-fusion flocks