Parrots developed the ability to imitate sounds. What for?

Through positive reinforcement it’s possible to get a parrot to say ‘Pauly wants a cracker’. It doesn’t understand any of the words in that sentence, it just knows if it does that sound combination it gets a cracker, but nature helped it out a bit because no amount of treats will get your dog to say, ‘Fido wants a bone’.

All types of animals use sounds for all kinds of purposes, but whether it means ‘I want to get my sex on’, ‘Danger!’ or ‘back off asshole’ at least the creatures in that species understand what that sound means.

So a parrot builds a nest by a swamp and develops the ability to croak like a frog. What is the evolutionary use of that?

Evolution doesn’t always have a purpose. Sometimes things just evolve, and if there’s nothing to select species members that don’t have the trait, it stays.

This isn’t exactly my field of expertise (not even close) but I’ve heard it theorized that the trait has stuck around because it helps males attract mates. It may have started just with the ability to make more complex sounds and songs and turned into mimicking after that. Researchers have discovered that parrots who are better at mimicking things also have better problem solving abilities, so it might either be a side effect of that or might just go hand in hand with it.

ETA: And at least sometimes, the parrots do understand something about what they are saying. Parrots have been trained to ask for specific things when they want them, for example.

“Pauly want a goddamn glass of water to go with his freakin’ cracker!”

I thought it was to mock their pirate masters?

Just a wild-ass guess here, but if a species could learn to imitate the sounds made by their prey, couldn’t they use the skill to lure a meal to come right to them?

Given that the sound-imitating birds in the wild all use that ability to construct elaborate mating calls, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s why parrots do it, too. Though of course free crackers are a nice side benefit, too.

That is a pretty wild guess since parrots are almost exclusively vegetarian.

Many bird species have to learn their songs/calls, and this seems to be just another example of that, albeit a more elaborate one.

It is a self-preservation device so that fictional parrots in mysteries and jokes will survive until the denouement or punchline.

Most birds do communicate by sound and some have quite elaborate calls. Parrots are out at the end of this curve but that’s not too surprising - parrots are one of the most intelligent bird families. So it’s no more surprising that parrots have a wide range of vocal expressions than it is for primates or dolphins.

Many female birds judge male birds by the complexity of their songs. So, many male birds not only sing very complex songs, but incorporate other bird songs in their songs. And, sometimes they simply imitate sounds they hear in the forest. Mocking birds, Lyre birds and Parrots all mimic various sounds.

Here’s a video of a Lyre bird imitating a camera shutter, car alarm, and a chainsaw chainsaw.

Wife was present when a cockatiel that had been, er, overserved (he liked Hawaiian Punch and didn’t mind additives) at a party the night before was asked if he had fun. He was still wobbly and slurred, “Shut up.” I don’t know if he then puked in his cage.

I heard* that Parrots don’t imitate sounds in the wild, but only in captivity and (much like a the poor echoless duck) no one knows why.

  • from an old episode of QI

Previous SDSAB answer to this question.

Actually… not.

It has been found that parrots are opportunistic omnivores. They don’t take down cows because they aren’t big enough (although the kea, from New Zealand, will attack and eat sheep while cooperating in flocks/packs). But birds of all sorts eat bugs and arthropods. I’ve had a parrot of African descent that was as avid a mouser as any cat. Macaws (South American) have been known to go after rabbits and even small deer in the wild.

Pet parrots have been found to do better if they are provided with a little animal protein (which may be as simple as eggs) along with, yes, a mostly but *not *exclusively vegetarian diet.

Science July 22, 2011.

So the social bonding hypothesis proferred by the SDSAB is in the ballpark, but parent/child bonding in a complex social system more than mate bonding. Thus the imitation of an owner’s words is less mating with that owner than taking it on as a surrogate parent and learning a new contact call.

Actually, yes. Most parrots gets most of their calories from vegetable matter, not from other animals. The do not, as offered in the post I responded to, lure prey by imitating their sounds.

I wonder, is the template provided by the parents related in any way to the individual contact call of one or both of the parents? And is there any pattern to which parts of the contact call follow the template, and which parts are modified? It sounds like it could be that parrots not only have names, but maybe they even have “surnames” and “given names”.

Does anyone know if this is for real? The car alarm I can buy, but the camera shutter and the chainsaw sound really incredible.

It’s real. Can’t watch the clip from where I am at the moment, but if it’s the one with David Attenborough in it, it’s real.

Yep, real. They’re really quite amazing mimics.