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What Parrots Tell Us About the Evolution of Birds 62

GrrlScientist writes "One of the most contentious issues among scientists who study the evolution of birds is identifying precisely when the modern birds (Neornithes) first appeared. This is due to conflicts between the fossil record and molecular dating methodologies. But there is another way to address this discrepancy. Because the evolution of parrots and cockatoos reflects the evolution of the birds (Aves) themselves, studying the psittaciformes offers compelling insights into this mystery. Further, because psittaciformes generally are not migratory and because they tend to occupy discrete ranges, their ancient patterns of diversification are easier to discern than for many other taxonomic orders of birds that have dispersed widely."
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What Parrots Tell Us About the Evolution of Birds

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  • by crazybit ( 918023 ) on Wednesday December 24, 2008 @11:31PM (#26227997)
    how intelligence evolved.

    They are probably the smartest non-mammal creatures around.
    • They are probably the smartest non-mammal creatures around.

      Octopuses [] might disagree.

      • by n0dna ( 939092 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @12:24AM (#26228205)

        So would any animal that doesn't shit in its own water dish.

        • So would any animal that doesn't shit in its own water dish.

          I'm not really sure that octopuses need a water dish. They kind of live in it and stuff.

        • by Rob Carr ( 780861 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:10PM (#26231063) Homepage Journal
          Parrots can engage in corporophagia--they eat parrot poop. If they didn't digest the food completely the first time, they'll get it the second. Their guts are short so their food has a short residence time. The things you do for flight!

          It's also how they spread good intestinal bacteria among the flock. If we are forced to hand-feed a parrot chick from day one, we mix some of the mother's feces in the formula for the first week or so. Survival rate improves dramatically, although feeding a bird the size of your little fingernail is still iffy (parakeets and bourkes).

          If the recent information on termites is correct, sharing feces may be one strategy for forming societies.

          Finally, if you really want to get freaked out, read about treating intestinal infections with feces transplants.
          • I find this rather strange.

            Parrots love to be on trees, the higher the tree the happier they are. They tend to climb as up as they can as part of their instinct (maybe to avoid predators or for having a better view). I have seen this behavior in their natural habitat (Peru's jungle).

            I don't see how parrots could eat their poo unless they can reach it, and in their natural habitat it's kinda difficult because the ground in not only way down, but also covered with meters of dead leaves that will drain t
              1. Not all environments provide unlimited food at all times. Don't forget, in Australia, parrots are often considered agricultural pests. Until significant farming took place, they didn't have such an availability of food as they do now. Macaws in the Amazon have to eat clay to be able to deal with the toxins in their environment. Picking undigested food out of their poop may provide an advantage, the clay having leached many of the toxins out already.
              2. Many parrots are ground birds (African greys have a diggin
              • Interesting, I didn't knew about such behavior in other species.

                The one I was talking about was "Amazonica Amazonica", mainly found in Amazon Jungle (Peru and Brasil). Luckily my bird doesn't like targeting humans with her poop ;), in fact she doesn't even like to poop inside her cage :D

                It's funny to see how, like humans, our feathery friends have different behavior according to the ecosystem where they live.
      • by crazybit ( 918023 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @01:10AM (#26228355)
        One big difference is that parrots developed personality, but octopuses didn't.

        One of the reasons I believe parrots have such a remarkable intelligence is that they live in an ecosystem bloated of food. I live in Peru and have seen the Amazon Jungle and you won't believe how rich it can be. []
        • by Gabrill ( 556503 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @01:31AM (#26228435)

          You've finally solved the problem. Intelligence is the result of survival boredom.

          • I'd say that's insightful.
          • Intelligence is the result of survival boredom.

            Isn't intelligence a prerequisite for boredom, and therefore can not be a result of boredom?

          • Intelligence itself might not be the result of "survival boredom". I consider it an incredibly interesting proposition, however.
            But society and hence technology is undeniably the result of "survival boredom". Once we got that agricultural thing down, there was no turning back.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Anyone that has spent much time around parrots and has a basic grasp of evolutionary theory will feel the same way.

          They basically just play, eat, rest, and then repeat. When they eat much more is wasted then is eaten. Seems like they maybe get 30% of the food down. Hardly a recipe for survival in any challenging environment.

          Makes me wonder if humans evolved intelligence as a survival mechanism or because our ancient ancestors lived in a land of plenty and intelligence followed.

          • by Nethead ( 1563 ) <> on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:33AM (#26229009) Homepage Journal

            I have an African Grey and a heavy duty Kenmore vacuum. I know of what you speak. We acquired this bird by agreeing to babysit it for 3 days.. that was 20 months ago. He is now part of the family of 3 humans, 5 cats (don't ask) and two goldfish. He has learned every fsckin' ringtone he's ever heard, how to count to five and appropriate use of the terms:

              Want more.
              Good shit Maynard. (when he really like what you just gave him)
              Good morning.
              Night Night little buddy.
              See ya later (when I put on my coat)
              Whatcha doin? (When a cat comes near)
              a human laugh.
              a human meow.
              a cat meow (different depending on the cat he's talking to and matching that cat's voice.)
              three of the cats names. (One of the cats is named Michelle and he's called her "Shell-bird" a few times which shows that he is able to work with language a bit. We call him Smokey-bird and hey-bird and he seems to think that "bird" is a compliment.)

            He likes to play making phone calls. He'll do a ring tone, say hello, and then wait and say things like "ok", "Sure". "Uh-huh". "Yeah," say numbers (he likes the sound of "zero-six-zero") and then say "Ok, bye" and then beep (sound of the phone hanging up.)

            He constantly makes various sounds of water, microwave beeps, and fart/burp noises (again, don't ask) and complex whistle noises. He's also damn good doing whistle riffs to blues and Grateful Dead. We have a DirecTV basic box without a TV on it connected to computer speakers so he can listen to rock in the living room where his cage is (XM Deep Tracks.) He's blessed with a nice view of Tulilip Bay and lots of wildlife.

            I'm working now on trying to teach him Morse code ;)

            These are very smart animals. About what you would expect from a three year old human... and about the same emotional development. They are a lot of maintenance though. You have to keep getting them new toys and new tastes to experience. You have to spend at least 5 hours a day with them in physical/mental activity. They do show love and loyalty but can be fickle as hell. They know when they are fucking with you and seem to enjoy it (actually using an evil laugh. My wife says it's my laugh but I don't think I sound like that.)

            I need to research more on training/teaching him but the details are scarce on-line. I enjoy my time with Smokey and do feel love for him. I hope that I find a good home for him one day as he should outlive me by a few decades. If any other slashdotters have Greys, please email me with tips/stories/support. My email addy is in the clear above.

            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by ZERO1ZERO ( 948669 )
              I know it's not a parrot, but this bird amazes me for the fact it can mimic non verbal/voice sounds so well. Particulary the chainsaws / camera. []
              • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @09:36AM (#26229677) Journal
                The footage is from the mountains near Melbourne, I've seen and heard lyre birds not 10 miles from where I live. The range of things they mimic is incredible and they are very loud.

                Like the OP there have been parrots in our family for years, my parents still have a cockatoo that they aquired when I was ten (fourty years ago). I agree wholeheartedly that parrots will use phrases in the correct context, some examples...
                "G'Day mate" when someone comes in the front door (but not when they leave).
                "Scratch cocky" if you STOP scratching him under the chin.

                It may just be the particular birds I've had experience with but it seems to me the larger parrots (cockatoos, galahs, etc) are smater than the smaller ones (budgies, cockatiels). Parrots aren't the only smart birds, another Attenbouogh clip shows [] crows are "street wise".
                • In my experience budgies are rather clever too. It's just that they're stubborn (i.e. typically not inquisitive), often disinterested in "people stuff" and of course their little heads run at speeds where humans must seem very very slow indeed. And they usually die rather young compared to larger parrots (old age takes them between 7 and 10 years) so there's not so much that a single budgie will learn in its lifetime.

                  They do have lovely singing voices though compared to any other parrot. And they're quite r

                  • I have owned budgies and seen them in the wild here in Australia, I don't think they are stupid just not as smart as larger parrots. However I think you may have hit the nail on the head whith the age comment, larger parrots live longer and will seem smarter because they have learnt more.
                • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

                  It's not just size -- budgies are smarter than cockatiels, in my experience (having owned both). The budgie I have now is not yet six, and she has always been smarter than the cockatiel I had that made it to eighteen, so age is not always enough to offset general stupidity. Still, longevity does factor into it -- even the most intelligent squid isn't going to be able to accomplish much (individually) with a three year life expectancy. I marvel at the evolutionary pressures that would make them live fast and

    • by sam_v1.35b ( 1296319 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @01:30AM (#26228429) Homepage
      Agreed. Where I live there are large flocks of cockatoos. They are very social and can get to great ages. I've often seen them playing with street lights where they pull the rubber seal out so it dangles and they can muck about. I've seen them sit in two groups on either end of a pond and mercilessly chase ducks from one end to the other. The most startling thing I ever saw was a cockatoo that was in the middle of the road. I was coming one way at 90kph and another car was coming the other way at around the same speed. The bird saw us coming too late. Under these circumstances most animals bolt, with predictably messy consequences. This cockatoo stood its ground, moved right to the centre of the road and stood still while we passed. After we passed it carried on. This was not seem like an animal freezing in fear. My impression was that it was a carefully calculated strategy.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TapeCutter ( 624760 )
        I'm assuming you're an Aussie because you are definitely describing Australian cockies, even though fly like they are on LSD the only bird that will even think of screwing with a cockatoo is an Eagle. If you are an Aussie you will know what I mean by a magpie but to those that don't have them they are like a black & white crow and they have a very pleasant morning/evening song.

        Anyway the light thing in your post reminded me of of a magpie that hangs out in my garden, I moved into a new house recently
        • I came home late the other night and as I got out of the car I heard the magpie, I looked up and spotted my "dumb" magpie sitting on top of the street light stuffing his face with moths and beetles that were swarming around the light.
          On the vein of smart animals, last year I purchased a bug zapper (yes, I know, you are better off buying one for your neighbors than for yourself, but there's no arguing with the missus). The first night, it started zapping bugs and attracting June Bugs. The second night, jus
    • by BikeHelmet ( 1437881 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @02:40AM (#26228697) Journal

      That's really neat.

      It makes me think of an interesting theory proposed by scientists - that intelligence is partly social.

      We learn off other people, so if you're surrounded by people smarter than you, then you're likely exposed to more concepts, and thus can better understand how those concepts relate to the world and other concepts.

      What I wonder is, if you could train a small community of animals to think in a more intelligent way, would their children be smarter? Would you kickstart an evolutionary boost to their intelligence?

      If you taught an entire colony of parrots to count to 10, would that become knowledge that future generations would retain?

      I'm curious where the limits of intelligence are for such a tiny brain - and I wonder how far intellect could be pushed for a larger animal, such as an elephant.

      They do say elephants never forget...

      • It makes me think of an interesting theory proposed by scientists - that intelligence is partly social.

        There's a word for this, originally from South Africa but it is now gaining traction in the global technology community.


        Sort of like "a human is a human through his interactions with other humans."

        Atendea-quel winya!

    • Agree wholeheartedly. Had a parrot once; modeled on Cap'n Flint (Silver's parrot). Came back one day to find my wife had got rid of him - she said the shrieking upset the neighbors. Anyway, I read once that the spiny ant-eater was the highest form of life that didn't dream. I suspect that dreaming is necessary for intelligence, and ask if anyone can tell if parrots dream?
  • Parrot? (Score:1, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Come on, all of us know that parrot is just vaporware.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    is that an african or a european psittaciformes?

  • by feepness ( 543479 ) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @12:38AM (#26228267) Homepage
    Pretty much exactly what they hear. Just louder and repeated ad nauseum.
  • Polly want a cracker
  • Polly wants a cracker!

  • He reminded me that most human scientific articles are wrong [] and not to listen to anything unless I got it straight from the horse's mouth. []
  • I mean, what possible ecological imperative would cause parrots to evolve so as to want to eat crackers and rum, and cause them to be attractive to pirates?

          mark, arrrhhhh, matey

  • Pretty much the same things we told them. Oh, and crackers came up surprisingly often.

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