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Singing parrots wanted: is our musicality unique?

Is our musicality unique? That’s what the Bird Singalong project aims to find out. And for that, they need the help of feathered friends from all around the world. ‘By researching how parrots learn songs, we also learn more about the origin of our own musicality.’ Do you have a parrot that can sing or whistle along to songs and do you want to help? Sign up now!

Do parrots use the same skills as humans to learn songs? That’s the big question that biologists Michelle Spierings, Nick Dam (Institute of Biology Leiden), and Henkjan Honing (University of Amsterdam) aim to answer. They are investigating whether parrots possess a skill called relative pitch. Dam explains: ‘When we learn a song, we listen to the difference between consecutive notes. This is called relative pitch. Animals, on the other hand, use absolute pitch and recognise a single note by its pitch (see website Bird Singalong).

Can parrots sing a song in a higher or lower pitch?

‘We want to find out how well parrots recognise and imitate melodies,’ says Dam. ‘But especially how flexible and creative they are in doing so.’ The task is simple: if you have a parrot that can whistle or sing a song, send a video of its ‘performance’ to the researchers. They will analyse the video and send back a new version that is slightly higher or lower in pitch. You play this new version back to your parrot. ‘We are curious to see what the birds do with this new version,’ says Dam. ‘We suspect that the parrot will mimic the pitch changes by singing the higher or lower version of the song. That would mean your parrot also has a relative pitch!’

Spectacular discovery on the horizon?

‘So far, we have only found relative pitch in humans,’ says Spierings. ‘That’s why we thought this skill was unique to human evolution.’ Despite many animals making music through singing or whistling, they don’t exhibit the same complexity as humans. Spierings: ‘It would be spectacular if we were to discover this skill in another animal.’

Are we less unique than we thought?

Evolutionarily, parrots are quite distant from humans. Spierings: ‘To find our common ancestor, you have to go very far back in time. It’s therefore highly unlikely that this common ancestor already had relative pitch: many more current species would have that skill now if that were the case.’ According to Spierings, it’s more likely that relative pitch has independently evolved at different times, both in parrots and in humans. ‘That would mean parrots are cognitively much more advanced than we previously believed. And that this skill is not purely human. Relative pitch might not be the crucial skill that makes our musicality so unique. The emergence of our musicality likely involved a confluence of even more different abilities.’

'We kicked off with a Zoom meeting with fifteen parrots.'

A parrot doesn't always do what you want

Approximately fifteen parrots are already participating in the research. ‘We started with a Zoom meeting with all the participants,’ says Spierings. ‘And we visited some of the participants. It was very enjoyable and also useful. Since we don’t have parrots ourselves, there were some things we hadn’t thought about. For example, a parrot often doesn’t want to sing when you take out your phone or when a researcher is nearby. That’s why we gave all the participants a Petcam, allowing them to make recordings remotely using their phones.’

The kick-off of the research with the first participants in Zoom.

A remix of the Dutch national anthem and The Addams Family

Some participants have already sent back a second version of the songs. Dam says, ‘It’s striking that the parrots are greatly in tune and mimic the songs accurately.’ ‘And indeed, we see that they adapt to a higher or lower version,’ adds Spierings. ‘So, they hear the difference and try to do something with it.’

In this process, parrots can be a bit stubborn. Dam: ‘That makes our work challenging, but, of course, exciting as well. Parrots are not animals that mimic exactly what you demonstrate to them. They truly create their own version, mixing high and low or combining two different songs. One parrot sang a remix of the Dutch national anthem and The Addams Family. How cool is that?’

‘We want to go international’

But to draw real conclusions, more parrots are needed. ‘This is mainly because each parrot does something a little different,’ explains Spierings. ‘They all have slightly different strategies. Are there more strategies that we haven’t thought of, or are there certain strategies that are used more frequently? Does each species have its own strategy? In short, we need more comparative material.’

Dam: ‘That’s why we want to go international. Currently, we only have Dutch parrots and one from the US. We are very curious about the talents of other species from around the world, and what kind of quirky tricks they have up their sleeves. Because that makes this research unique.

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