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Music sensitivity parrots put to the test

A meeting place for singing parrots. That is one of the ambitions of Michelle Spierings’ new project. With her awarded NWO XS grant, she wants to test the parrots’ hearing ability. ‘I am curious to see how they can recognise and imitate changing melodies. And it would be amazing to test that with a large group of singing parrots.’

Music is joy. The melody goes up and down, and with our hearing we follow the succeeding notes and get carried away. With animals, this is not necessarily the case. ‘To follow a melody line, you have to be able to hear the difference between two notes. We call this relative hearing, and it is something humans excel at. Animals only hear notes, such as C, A or F minor. That is absolute hearing, and something humans can rarely do,’ explains Spierings, a researcher at the Institute of Biology Leiden (IBL).

Are parrots the exception?

Still, Spierings thinks there is an exception in the animal kingdom: ‘I think parrots might also have relative hearing. Besides being a very musical species, they can make many different sounds, and also sing. We know they probably have absolute hearing, but we also want to test relative hearing. There’s just one problem: We don't have parrots at the university.’

With that, the next idea emerged: An app for parrot owners, with which Spierings could collaborate to test her theory. ‘We want to test whether a parrot can still imitate a song when we play it with a different pitch or interval. I can already picture it: a big zoom conversation with forty parrots and their owners, with whom you can really form a little community. That would be great.’

As good as an opera singer

Spierings is also including the art and knowledge of opera singers in the project. ‘We want to give these singers the same tests as we do with the parrots. Because the parrots sometimes make a mistake, but so do people, of course. So if a professional opera singer cannot do a task, we cannot expect parrots to perform well. I am very curious to see how many different versions of Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’ we will have collected next year.

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Take part in the experiment

If you know someone or are someone with a singing parrot, please feel email Michelle Spierings to sign up or ask for more information.

Follow the bird singalong socials

Via Facebook and Instagram, the researchers will share updates and other interesting and fun facts.

Photo: Vladimir Haltakov - Unsplash

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