Ellie, an 11-year-old Goffin's cockatoo, calls a friend (Credit: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)

Parrots are highly social creatures. They need the companionship of other birds for their well-being. This is easy enough in the wild, where they live in large flocks. However, the parrots that live in captivity as pets are often bored and isolated. But a new study has found that modern technology may help alleviate the birds' loneliness.

The Northeastern University-led study involved 18 pet parrots across a range of species. The scientists began by teaching the intelligent birds how to video-call on Facebook Messenger. They then spent two weeks introducing each parrot to two or three potential "friends" that were chosen based on their size and their time zone. Once the training was completed, the scientists let the birds decide when they wanted to make a call.

To initiate a call, the parrots would first ring a bell. This alerted their owners that they wanted a smartphone or tablet. The pets would then use their beaks to tap on the photo of the bird they wished to contact. Each parrot could call up to two friends daily and "talk" to them for a maximum of five minutes.

The researchers say the three-month-long study was a resounding success. The clever birds made several calls and were extremely excited to see their new pals.

"Some would sing, some would play around and go upside down, others would want to show another bird their toys," said study coauthor Ilyena Hirskyj-Douglas.

Researchers found that video-calling technology helped alleviate the parrots' loneliness
(Credit: Northeastern University/ Glasgow University)

A few parrots even learned new skills, like foraging and flying, from their online friends. Even more interesting, many parrots chose to call the same birds repeatedly. This suggested they were forming long-lasting friendships. Jennifer Cunha, a parrot behaviorist at Northeastern, says that her cockatoo, Ellie, is still friends with Cookie, a California-based African grey. "It's been over a year, and they still talk," she says.

The scientists believe that video chats can recreate for parrots some of the social benefits of living in a flock by providing them with companionship and stimulation. However, they caution that not all pet parrots will take to online socializing. Some birds can get aggressive and even violent. They, therefore, urge pet owners to be careful when introducing the birds to the technology and to closely monitor all video chats.

Resources: news.northeastern.edu, Smithsonianmag.com, NPR.com