Tag Archives: Parrot

Humans aren’t the only animals that get drunk (or worse): here are a few others

Drinking isn’t good for you, but watching parrots get drunk is both healthy and entertaining. Not for the parrots, though.

There’s no day like a weekend day — cause that’s when we get to party. But humans aren’t the only animals that like to abuse their systems with various chemicals. In fact, a lot of animals do it; and get into trouble afterward. We’ve seen the shenanigans that animals go through in love (and lust), some of which are amusingly similar to those we humans cause or experience. So let’s see whether our furry and feathered friends also mirror us in the bad choices we make on a night out on the town (spoiler: they do).

The Darwin Drinking Awards

Northern Australia is the only place on Earth that I know of which has three seasons: a wet season, a dry season, and a drunken parrot season.

Red-collared Lorikeet.
Image via Wikimedia.

Just before the wet season, roughly in mid-to-late December, the local Weeping Boer-bean trees (Schotia brachypetala) are flowering. This brings swarms of red-collared lorikeets to the area to feed on the nectar of the trees’ flowers. However, after a while, some of the birds start to sway a little bit — and then fall out of trees. Darwin locals report that the birds lack coordination and that they seemingly lose their ability to fly and sometimes even to walk. Vets say the birds act similar to drunken people. They also seem to experience disorientation, energy loss, and perhaps headaches, all very familiar hangover symptoms.

While the possibility of a virus affecting these birds hasn’t yet been ruled out, the event may have more to do with the trees — which are also known as the Drunken Parrot Tree, I’ll let you judge for yourself. So far, local animal caretakers and vets provide safe, quiet places for the parrots to recover — which can take months in some rare cases according to National Geographic — while providing sweetened porridge and fresh fruit. The prevailing theory is that the parrots get drunk off their tails on nectar and fruit fermented in the baking Australian heat.

Tripping Reindeers

Reindeer live in Siberia (in North America too, but they’re called caribou there). The hallucinogenic mushroom Amanita muscaria also lives in Siberia, among other places. And the reindeer like to get really, really high on the ‘shrooms during those long and dreary winter months.

Image credits Bernard Spragg. NZ / Flickr.

Reindeer that partake of the mushrooms have been documented to act almost as if drunk, running around aimlessly, making strange noises, and twitching their heads.

“They have a desire to experience altered states of consciousness,” Huffington Post cites researcher Andrew Haynes, who studied the behavior in the wild. “For humans a common side-effect of mushrooms is the feeling of flying, so it’s interesting the legend about Santa’s reindeer is they can fly.”

He also adds that herdsmen drink the reindeer’s urine to get high themselves.

“Fly agaric is found across the northern hemisphere and has long been used by mankind for its psychotropic properties, but its use can be dangerous because it also contains toxic substances,” he explains for the Pharmaceutical Journal.

“Reindeer seem to metabolise these toxic elements without harm, while the main psychoactive constituents remain unmetabolised and are excreted in the urine. Reindeer herders in Europe and Asia long ago learnt to collect the reindeer urine for use as a comparatively safe source of the hallucinogen.”

Sharing, it seems, really is caring.

Popped-up Wallabies

Wallabies are adorable, diminutive kangaroos native to Australia and New Guinea.

They look like this.
Image via Pxfuel.

Opium poppy farmers on Tasmania (an island off the south Australian coast) have reported that wallabies will sometimes break into their fields to dine on the flowers, which are the raw material for prescription painkillers.

Although exactly which species of wallabies are responsible is still unknown, the animals have been seen eating poppies before running around in circles and eventually passing out, according to a BBC report. Lara Giddings, the attorney general for the island state of Tasmania even described the animals as being “high as a kite” and creating crop circles.

“The one interesting bit that I found recently in one of my briefs on the poppy industry was that we have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles,” Lara Giddings told a parliamentary hearing on security for poppy crops. “Then they crash.”

“We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”

Rick Rockliff, a spokesman for poppy producer Tasmanian Alkaloids, told the BBC that these wallaby incursions aren’t very common, although other animals have been spotted “acting unusually” in the poppies.

Australia is a major producer of raw materials for the painkiller industry, supplying around half of the world’s (legally-grown) opium. And, it seems, the main supplier for wallabies as well.

Bees on a binge

Bees keep the world turning, but that doesn’t seem to stop them from functional alcoholism.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhUKLsSjUZs

The bee nervous system is similar enough to that of humans for alcohol to have similar effects on them. In fact, researchers sometimes use bee colonies as models to test out the effects of alcohol intoxication in humans and other vertebrates. For example, a team of researchers at Ohio State University routinely gives bees ethanol — drinking alcohol — to see how it affects them. Unsurprisingly, they found that it affected their flying, walking, and grooming.

“Alcohol affects bees and humans in similar ways — it impairs motor functioning along with learning and memory processing,” Dr Julie Mustard, an entomology researcher at the university, explained to the BBC.

But bees seem in no way content to limit their day-drinking to the lab. Just last year, Australian Parliament’s head beekeeper Cormac Farrell explained that the bees, which could be seen sometimes dropping on the ground around the Australian House of Parliament in Canberra, are just really blitzed. Sadly for the bees, they can sometimes drink themselves to death, and the queens aren’t very understanding of them — they will post guards at the entrance of their hives to keep any ‘merry’ bees from getting in.

“As the weather heats up, the nectar in some Australian flowers will ferment, making the foragers drunk,” Farrell told The Canberra Times last year. “Usually this makes them a bit wobbly, and if they come back to the beehive drunk the guards will turn them away until they sober up.”

“The drunk bees are kept out of the hive to stop the honey from fermenting inside, which could hurt the whole colony,” he added.

Only introduced and exotic honeybees seem affected, with Farrell noting that he had not seen any drunk native bees, of which Australia can boast 2000 species.

So, are bees just the victims of excellent work ethic and fermenting sugar? It doesn’t appear that way — bees just seem to enjoy getting smashed hard. Charles Abramson of Ohio State University told Newscientist that while most animals need to be coaxed into drinking alcohol, “we can get [bees] to drink pure ethanol, and I know of no organism that drinks pure ethanol – not even a college student.”

A bee, he adds, will drink the equivalent of a human downing 10 liters of wine in a single sitting. Flawless work ethic indeed!

Puff puff porpoise

Dolphins… like to pass toxic pufferfish around to get high.

The behavior was first reported on by marine biologist Lisa Steiner in 1995. She was studying a group of rough-toothed dolphins roughly in the region of the Azores when she noticed that some of them were pushing an inflated pufferfish around and rubbing their faces against it. Which was an odd sight, as that pufferfish uses one of the most lethal substances on Earth, tetrodotoxin, to protect itself from, among others, dolphins. Later on, Steiner would hypothesize that the dolphins were only exposed to tiny amounts of tetrodotoxin, and this resulted in a high, not death. Which is an ideal outcome in my book.

It’s still unclear whether the dolphins are actually getting a chemical kick out of the pufferfish or if they’re just harassing the poor animal for sport. The main points of contention are that tetrodotoxin isn’t known to cross the brain-blood barrier, and that it’s extremely deadly — one pufferfish contains enough to kill 30 full-grown people. However, in episode two of the BBC One documentary film, “Dolphins: Spy in the Pod,” a group of dolphins was filmed hunting pufferfish and biting into it but not eating it, then sharing the fish with their mates.

So this one is still a bit up in the air. But no matter whether the fish is used as a drug or a simple toy, given how toxic it is, it’s definitely dangerous.

These are a few of the more unusual stories of animals binging, but they’re certainly not the only ones. Jaguars like to chew on the roots of yagé vines — a main component of the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca — and their diminutive cousins love catnip. And, well, humans are animals too. While it’s definitely a lot of fun reading about their shenanigans, hangovers aren’t, so enjoy your own real-life shenanigans in moderation.

New Zealand parrots can assess probabilities to make the best decision

The kea (Nestor notabilis) is a large parrot in the family Nestoridae found in the forested and alpine regions of the South Island of New Zealand. They’re noisy, lively birds that move around awkwardly by hopping sideways in order to move forward. They’re also very playful, inquisitive, brave, and — as a new study has shown — have highly flexible intelligence. According to the findings, the parrots use probabilities to make decisions that yield the best decisions for them. Previously, this ability was thought to be exclusive to humans and great apes.

Researchers at the University of Auckland trained six male keas to associate black wooden tokens with tasty rewards and orange tokens with no reward.

Then, the birds were presented with their first test: two transparent jars containing the same overall number of tokens, only one was crammed with black tokens, while the other was mostly orange.

After 20 trials, three birds showed a clear preference for the jar with more black tokens. Up to now, that’s not very surprising since they were conditioned to recognize the reward-offering token.

In the next experiment, however, the parrots showed they actually are a lot more than meets the eye. This time, the two jars were filled with both black and orange tokens. The number of black tokens was the same in both jars, but one of them had slightly more orange tokens. Four birds showed a clear preference, favoring the jar with the greatest ratio of black to orange tokens.

In other words, the keas meant a mental approximation of which jar might contain the most tokens, juggled the probabilities, and picked the jar which they thought had the highest odds of rendering a treat.

Further experiments involving dividers cemented the notion that the birds weren’t simply responding to the actual number of tokens in the jar — they considered the relative likelihood of obtaining a black token.

The keas were even able to pick one of two researchers whom they’d previously watched always taking black token. In other words, they remember who the biased person was.

This kind of flexible intelligence had only been seen before in humans and chimpanzees, the authors wrote in the journal Nature Communications.

Speaking to The Guardian, co-author Alex Taylor of the University of Auckland said that the findings have important implications for unraveling the origins of intelligence (the common ancestor of humans and birds split about 300 million years ago), as well as artificial intelligence.

“One of the holy grails of research on artificial intelligence is the type of commonsense reasoning that humans show, where we bring together multiple sources of information into a single prediction or judgement about what will happen next in the world,” he said. “Our work suggests that aspects of this ability have likely evolved twice on our planet – in primates and birds.”

African grey parrots will help their peers without expecting anything in return

New research at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany found that African grey parrots will help their peers even if they don’t gain anything from it. The findings could help inform how altruism and prosocial behavior evolved in humans.

Image credits Found Animals Foundation / Flickr.

Us humans, along with some of our great ape relatives, like to stick together. Part of that involves helping out those in need, even if we don’t get anything back. Such prosocial behavior helps strengthen the bonds between individual members, thus strengthening the group overall, and improving our collective chances to survive and procreate (the end goal of evolution).

It would be easy to chalk it up to our intelligence — it makes sense to help those in need so that they will help us in turn. To the best of our knowledge however, crows, despite being social and intelligent birds, don’t really help each other out. In an effort to find the root of such prosocial behavior, the team behind the new study worked with two species of parrots and observed whether they would offer help to their peers and if so, under which conditions.

Token of goodwill

“We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves,” says study co-author Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany.

Parrots have large brains for their body size, giving them quite a fair share of cognitive oomph. As a group, they are known for having excellent problem-solving skills and, as anyone who has one for a pet knows, a great need for interaction and stimulation.

The team worked with several African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws. For the experiment, the animals were placed in paired-up boxes with holes cut into the sides so that each bird could interact with the researchers and one another. The animals were trained to trade tokens with a human in return for a nut. They could cash the token in themselves or pass it over to their neighbor, allowing the other bird to earn a treat instead.

While both species were eager to trade with the experimenters, only the African grey parrots were willing to give the token to their neighbor. They would do so regardless of the relationship between themselves and their neighbors, the team found. The drive to help someone even if they aren’t a friend is a very prosocial behavior, the team explains.

“It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously–in their very first trial–thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on,” von Bayern explains.

“Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return.”

Another very interesting find was that the parrots seemed to understand whether their neighbor needed help or not. They would only pass a token on if their partner had the opportunity to make an exchange (i.e. the experimenter was interacting with them) but no token to give. Otherwise, they would keep it. They would do this regardless of whether their partner was their friend or not, Bayern explains. However, if they were paired up with a friend, the helper would send even more tokens their way.

As to why the African greys engaged in such behavior while the blue-headed macaws did not, the team explains that it likely comes down to differences in their social structures in the wild.

Regardless of why, the findings show that helpful behavior isn’t an exclusive prerogative of great apes, but can (and did) independently evolve in other lineages. Exactly how widespread it is among the 393 known parrot species remains to be seen. There are still many questions to explore, the team adds: for example, what drives these helpful behaviors in parrots? What motivates them? And how can the birds tell when one of their peers needs help?

Personally, I like to think they’re just nice and considerate, despite their sometimes obnoxious and loud nature.

The paper “Parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards” has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Snowball the cockatoo invents his own groovy dancing, showing that it is not a unique human construct

Credit: YouTube.

A cute yellow-crested cockatoo went viral on YouTube more than a decade ago due to his smooth dance moves. Make no mistake, however — this isn’t mere entertainment. A new study analyzed Snowball’s dance repertoire over music by artists like Queen or Backstreet Boys, finding that the cockatoo employs spontaneous and diverse movements using various body parts. The authors argue that dancing isn’t a product of human culture but rather a physical response to rhythm when certain cognitive and neural capacities come together.

“What’s most interesting to us is the sheer diversity of his movements to music,” says senior author Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University and Harvard University.

Patel and colleagues analyzed footage of Snowball, finding (much to their surprise) that the bird was employing much richer movements in his choreography than the simple head bobbing and foot lifting they were used to seeing from him. The most interesting part is that the bird received no training, suggesting that his dance moves are a spontaneous response to music.

Previously, Patel showed that Snowball’s dancing was on beat. This, in and of itself, was intriguing because no other primates seem to be able to dance. In the new study, Patel and R. Joanne Jao Keehn, a cognitive neuroscientist and a classically and contemporarily trained dancer, analyzed new recordings of the parrot on a frame-by-frame basis with the audio muted. The videos were filmed while Snowball was grooving two classic hits from the 80s, “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Each song was played three times for a total of 23 minutes of sweet dancing. The only other person in the room was Snowball’s owner, Irena Schulz, who would occasionally shout “Good boy” but did not intervene in any other way, like dancing to the beat herself.

The researchers looked for sequences of repeated movements. In total, 14 dance movements and two composite movements which were clearly intentional were identified by the study’s authors. For instance, Snowball bobs, swings, and circles his head around in more than one way. Sometimes, he performs these movements in coordination with foot lifts and other types of movement.

Snowball tends to dance in snippets of 3 to 4 seconds. Although his dancing is similar, each tune elicits slightly different moves, suggesting that the parrot is flexible and perhaps creative. Sulfur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) are a particularly clever species, being recognized for their tool-making and lock-picking abilities.

The researchers say that humans and parrots can boogie thanks to the convergence of five traits they share:

  1. Vocal learning;
  2. Nonverbal movement imitation;
  3. The tendency to form long-term social bonds;
  4. The ability to learn complex sequences of actions;
  5. Awareness of communicative movements.

In the future, the researchers plan on conducting a new study with Snowball. They plan to study whether the dancing parrot is more interested in dancing when he’s alone or when other people around. Most people dance more when other individuals are around, signifying that dancing is an important cultural practice that fosters social interaction.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.

Escaped parrots are now living, roosting in 23 US states

A new study reports that around 56 different parrot species have been spotted in the wild in 43 states across the USA. These birds aren’t native to the continent — but 25 species are now breeding in 23 different states, effectively becoming naturalized to the country.

Monk Parakeet.

Monk Parakeet.
Image via Pixabay.

In the 1950s and 60s, tens of thousands of monk parakeets were imported to the USA as pets from South America. Over the years, many escaped (or worse, were released) from their owners. By 1968, they were breeding in the wild across 10 states, including a colony in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, home of the University of Chicago campus. Stephen Pruett-Jones, now a Ph.D. and ecologist at the University of Chicago, first stumbled upon these birds back in 1988, when he first came to Chicago, in Hyde Park.

Made in the USA

“I have never actually held a wild parrot in the United States,” he says. “But indirectly I’ve become the spokesperson for parrot research here because when I saw the monk parakeets in Chicago, I realized nobody else was working on them.”

The US originally harbored two native species of parrot: the Carolina parakeet and the thick-billed parrot. The Carolina parakeet is now extinct, while the thick-billed parrot, a Mexican species that ranged into the southwestern states, was driven out of the U.S. Needless to say, this made for a very peculiar sighting when, on his daily commute, Pruett-Jones spotted a large group of parakeets. Although his usual area of research focuses on Australian wild birds such as wrens, he started sending out students to study the birds and eventually organized an annual lab project to count them. Over time, this project grew much larger than he had anticipated.

Pruett-Jones recently published a study, alongside Jennifer Uehling, a former UChicago undergraduate student now working on a Ph.D. at Cornell University, and Jason Tallant of the University of Michigan, detailing the findings. Between 2002 and 2016, the paper reports, 56 different parrot species were spotted in the wild in 43 states. Of these, 25 species are now breeding in the wild in 23 different states.

“Many of them were escaped pets, or their owners released them because they couldn’t train them or they made too much noise — all the reasons people let pets go,” Pruett-Jones said. “But many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”

The study drew on two databases of bird sightings, which were used to track the new ranges of these naturalized parrot species. The first (the Christmas Bird Count) is an annual survey organized by the National Audubon Society that gathers data on US birds during a two-week period (December 14 to January 15) each year. The second one (eBird) is an online database where amateur and professional bird watchers can log all the birds they have seen.

The team reports that the most common species of parrots in the USA today are monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet. They mostly gravitate in the warmer regions of Florida, Texas, and California, but large populations of parrots also roost around cities like New York and Chicago. And, in a somewhat ironic twist, there are now more Red-crowned Amazons living in California than there are in their original habitats in Mexico.

“The entire conservation focus for this species is now on a non-native, introduced, naturalized population,” Pruett-Jones added. “The survival of the species is most likely going to come from efforts to save it someplace where it never existed before.”

Monk parakeets are considered to be agricultural pests in South America, the team writes, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in the US as well. Apart from a few isolated cases, the feral US parrots also don’t seem to be competing with native birds. The Chicago parakeets seem to live in and off the city around the year — they don’t migrate at all, and mostly dine in the city’s parks and open grassy areas. One of Pruett-Jones’ students discovered that make it through the harsh local winters by switching almost exclusively to backyard bird feeders from December to February.

Monk parakeets are a bit of trouble, however, as they build rather bulky nests (they’re the only species of parrot that builds their own nest) which can damage utility lines. The birds aren’t as numerous as they used to be, dwindling from around a peak of 400 to around 30 today. This trend seems consistent across all the birds in the study, the team notes, perhaps due to a disease or parasite — and this may actually be threatening the species’ survival.

“Because of human activity transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere,” says Pruett-Jones’. “Now for some of these parrots, they may become critical to the survival of the species.”

The paper “Status of naturalized parrots in the United States” has been published in the Journal of Ornithology.

Macaws can communicate with each other by blushing

Parrots, highly intelligent and communicative creatures, may employ an unexpected gesture to express themselves: blushing.

This is a ‘blushing’ macaw (left) compared to a ‘non-blushing’ macaw (right). Image credits: A. Beraud.

We used to once believe that complex communication was restricted to humans. But, time and time again, it’s been shown that other creatures are capable of conveying intricate messages, using a surprisingly wide array of tactics; simply put, we’re not nearly as unique as we once thought. Now, we can wipe yet another gesture from the “human only” list: blushing.

In a new study, five captive blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara ararauna) we’re examined while interacting with one another and their human caretakers. They noted the feather position (ruffled or sleeked) on the crown, nape, and cheek, as well as the presence or absence of blushing on the bare skin of the cheek.

They tried to figure out what these gestures meant, observing that feather ruffling was more common when the birds were not in motion, particularly during social interactions and resting periods. Meanwhile, blushing was much more common when the human caretaker was actively interacting with the parrot. This suggests that feather ruffling and blushing are associated with positive social interactions and may be used to communicate this feeling.

“How birds use facial displays and whether they communicate their inner subjective feelings is a question that is crucial to deepening our understanding of bird sentience,” Aline Bertin of the INRA Centre Val de Loire, France and colleagues write in the study.

“Blushing may not be a characteristic unique to humans: the featherless cheek of the blue-and-yellow macaw parrot reveals rapid skin color changes in situations associated with emotion. The macaw’s particularly complex face may enable communication of emotion via color and feather displays,” Bertin comments.

There is still some room for interpretation when it comes to the results, the team concedes. This was still a small sample size, and whenever you’re trying to discuss an animal’s subjective feelings, there will be some room for interpretation. But macaws (a generic name for New World parrots) have been shown to be highly intelligent, and are generally considered one of the smartest birds.

Aside from being a remarkable feature, this could also be significant for the welfare of the millions of parrots being kept as pets.

“On a practical level, parrots are popular companion animals, with millions of parrots being kept as pets, and understanding visual communication in parrots may help to assess their well-being in captive conditions,” Bertin concludes.

The article is freely available in PLoS ONE.

Bertin A, Beraud A, Lansade L, Blache M-C, Diot A, Mulot B, et al. (2018) Facial display and blushing: Means of visual communication in blue-and-yellow macaws (Ara Ararauna)? PLoS ONE 13(8): e0201762. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0201762

Why it’s illegal to own one guinea pig in Switzerland

At first, it sounds like one of the silliest laws ever: in Switzerland, you’re not allowed to own just one guinea pig or parrot. The reason for this is that they’re social species, and they are considered victims of abuse if they aren’t able to regularly interact with others of their species.

Photo by Mikerussell.

If you’re an animal person, you’ll love Switzerland. In recent years, they’ve passed quite a few pet-friendly laws which I hope will be implemented in more places throughout the world. For starters, dog owners must take a course that teaches them how to take care of their dogs, care for their needs and deal with several behavioral situations. Anglers (fishermen) are required to take a course on humane fishing. But perhaps the most heartwarming Swiss law is about guinea pigs: you’re not allowed to have just one! They need social interaction to be happy, so owning a single guinea pig is considered harmful to its well-being and forbidden by law.
They need social interaction to feel good, so owning a single guinea pig is considered harmful to its well-being and forbidden by law.

Animal matchmaking

Guinea pigs are quite curious and inquisitive in nature, but they are timid explorers. They get very attached to their owners and partners. If something does happen to their partner, then owners need to find another one — and that’s not easy (for the humans as well as the guinea pigs). This is why Swiss animal lover Priska Küng runs a kind of matchmaking agency — for lonely guinea pigs.

“Because they hardly ever die at the same time, even if they are exactly the same age, people who don’t want a new guinea pig and lose one of their two animals need an interim solution,” she says.

Her service is in high demand, but it’s also challenging: even though they don’t want to be lonely, guinea pigs can be quite picky about who they live with.

“A young animal can annoy a four or five-year-old guinea pig by being too temperamental and active,” says Küng. But sometimes the opposite is true: Küng has also known guinea pig grandpas to feel rejuvenated by the addition of a younger companion.

What do you think about this approach? Sweden has similar legislation in place and several other countries have sensible laws protecting social animals. Is this something you’d like to see implemented everywhere, or does it feel like overkill?