Wild Thing: What’s in a name?

Wild Thing is an occasional series where JHU Press authors write about the flora and fauna of the natural world—from the rarest flower to the most magnificent beast. 

By Matt Cameron

Female Carnaby’s Cockatoo that has come to the nest entrance on hearing the call of her partner (Copyright – Matt Cameron).

Scientists have long known that parrots possess individually distinct contact calls, the loudest and most commonly uttered vocalization. These are akin to parrots having their own names, early evidence for which came from observations of Carnaby’s Cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus latirostris). Males that had been out foraging would return to the nesting area mid-morning to feed the females, calling to announce their arrival. Tucked away inside their nest hollows, female Carnaby’s Cockatoos were able to distinguish the calls of their partner from that of other males, leaving the nest hollow and flying out to meet him.

Names have some practical advantages that assist birds survive in the wild. In Carnaby’s Cockatoos, they prevent females from leaving the nest unnecessarily, reducing the exposure of their eggs to weather or predators. In parrots that stash their young in crèches while out foraging, names help ensure that parents and offspring are quickly reunited when parents return to the crèche.

Other groups of animals use names in similar ways. However, parrot names are special for a number of reasons, all of which help the birds manage relationships in the complex world that is parrot society. For example, parrots are able to change their names over time. Scientists have shown that mated pairs have similar names, as do birds within a flock and birds that share a roost. When parrots join a new social group, they change their name to reflect that of other group members. Parrots are also capable of naming other parrots. Ralf Wanker found that captive Spectacled Parrotlets (Forpus conspicillatus) used specific contact calls when interacting with different individuals, in effect calling out the name of another parrot in order to gain its attention. And parrots can imitate the names of other individual parrots, too. Interactions between parrots are often characterized by back-and-forth calling. Observations of wild Orange-fronted Parakeets (Aratinga canicularis) have shown that birds modify their names during these short exchanges such that they become similar or dissimilar, thereby indicating their willingness to spend time together by imitating each other’s name.

The capacity parrots have for vocal learning poses an interesting question about how young parrots initially acquire their name. Are they born with these names, or do they learn them in the nest? To answer this question you need to swap clutches of eggs between the nests of unrelated pairs. Inherited names would resemble those of the biologically parents, while learned names would resemble those of the adoptive parents. This is not as simple as it sounds. Parrot nests can be difficult to locate, and when found can be hard to access. Karl Berg and colleagues solved the problem by working with an intensively studied population of Green-rumped Parrotlets (Forpus passerinus) occupying a cattle ranch in Venezuela (watch a video of them being fed). Birds nested in artificial hollows hung on fence posts, making it easy for researchers to swap clutches and install audio-video equipment to record the calls of adults and nestlings. The names of nestlings proved to be similar to their siblings and to the adult birds that reared them, indicating names were learned and not inherited. It is probable that young birds copied the calls of parent birds, modifying them slightly. A more tantalizing prospect is that parent birds named the young in their nest. Under this scenario, young birds learned their name in much the same way that human children learn their name, by imitating their parents.

Matt Cameron is an independent scholar and the author of Parrots: The Animal Answer Guide and Cockatoos.