The New York Post ran a nice story last week entitled “Hero Pets Who Saved Human Children,” in which Willie the Quaker Parrot got some well-earned props for saving a 2-year old from choking on a Pop-Tart back in 2006.
Willie’s fast and life-saving response to a crisis has done a lot to improve the image of Quaker Parrots, which in the past haven’t always been portrayed in a positive light due to their penchant for annoying utility companies. It’s nice to see the species (which the Post correctly notes is “a particularly intelligent and chatty breed that loves to clown around”) get a bit of praise.
The study was based on observations of 29,776 Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta Monachus) flocks. It is the first study to attempt to quantify complex parrot behavior using social network analysis.
Pairs are the fundamental structural unit in monk parakeet social life. However “additional tiers of social structure, akin to social levels documented in elephants, sea lions, and dolphins, may also be present.”
Monk parakeet life is structured by aggression. The researchers noted about 4,400 aggressive events in two captive flocks studied, ” although the severity of aggression was relatively low and observed injuries rare in each group.”
Dominance hierarchies exist but these hierarchies are relatively flat. While there are always “winners” and “losers” in every social conflict, “winning” individuals don’t always win (and “losers” don’t always lose).
“Fission and fusion” (flocks splitting up and rejoining) is common.
There appears to be no vocal sharing of foraging information among disparate flocks.
The study was carried out by E.A. Hobson, M. L. Avery, and T.F. Wright. It is important because “understanding the social systems of parrots is critical to understanding social processes such as vocal learning and the spread of behaviors. Many parrot species are now threatened or endangered, and increased understanding of how they structure their social interactions could improve our ability to manage these populations.”
The findings in this report are consistent with my own observations of wild Monk Parakeet flocks in Brooklyn. I am grateful to have been invited to share photos with the researchers.