Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: The Parrot Singalong & Speech Project

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Normally, I am not a great fan of “citizen science” when it involves companion animals—the situation in which scientists design an experiment and then ask members of the public to carry out the study The scientists then collate and analyze the data.

I have good reason for being skeptical of such studies. Even with decades of experience and rigorous protocols, I still sometimes find it difficult to decide exactly when to declare a mistrial during an experiment–that is, determine when not to count a trial as part of the study and instead redo it, usually at a later date. Some mistrials are of course obvious—as when the parrot attacks the experimental apparatus instead of engaging with it! Others—like deciding if the parrot was momentarily distracted during a manipulation—might not be quite so clear and takes lots of analysis of videos and notes from the research assistants performing the experiment.

So, my fear is that when asked to report the outcome of trials in an experiment that is designed to examine nonhuman intelligence, the owner of a companion animal, not having those years of experience, might “cherry pick” the data that are being submitted; that is, decide to eliminate imperfect trials that nevertheless should be counted. It is also possible that an owner, wanting to show just how smart their pet can be, might consciously submit only successful trials. Or owners might err unconsciously, inadvertently cuing their animal by not quite understanding the controls that were put in place to avoid such cuing. Even when all the data are correctly collected there is the possibility that owners will overinterpret and/or disseminate the results before the scientists have done their full analyses, thus complicating the entire scientific process. All that said, every once in a while I find that there are situations in which citizen science can work, and I’m devoting this blog to discussing one of them.

When Citizen Science Works

The researchers involved in this study previously carried out a published survey of parrot vocal learning behavior and were very careful to acknowledge the possible limitations of their findings. They now are collaborating with a much larger group of scientists with a wide range of expertise and are massively expanding the scope of their study.

Personally, to be honest, I must make it clear that I am only peripherally involved in this study—I haven’t had the time or bandwidth to help with the design. But I do know the people involved, and I’ve been following many of their discussions. Plus, this particular study simply involves having humans record themselves and their parrots, and the researchers want the best possible samples for analysis. So, I’ll let the scientists speak for themselves (note that the letter seems to be directed exclusively to parrot owners who had participated in the previous study, but that is not the case…the researchers want as many new owners to submit data as is possible, which is why I am sending this along):

Dear “What Does Polly Say?” Participant, 

A couple of years ago you filled out a survey to tell us about your parrot’s vocabulary and help study parrot vocal learning. Thank you again for contributing to that project! In case you haven’t seen it, our first set of results were published in this scientific article: “A survey of vocal mimicry in companion parrots” (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-24335-x) and was covered by multiple news outlets including Forbes and NPR. Your contributions provided fascinating data that revealed how different species of parrots “talk.”

I am emailing because our research is continuing and expanding to include a new project: The Parrot Singalong and Speech Project. We are seeking recordings of parrots singing, whistling or speaking along with recordings of models that they learned those songs or words from. We will compare the parrot speech and songs with human speech and songs to help understand what sounds parrots can copy and which species are best at it. We hope to uncover new insights into parrot learning, cognition, and musicality. We gratefully invite you to contribute to this research, and to help us spread the word by telling other parrot lovers about it. You can learn more here: manyparrots.org.

We sincerely appreciate the community of parrot companions who are making this research possible. Thank you for your contributions, past and future. We hope that you and your bird(s) are happy, healthy, and chatty. 

Sincerely, 

Lauryn Benedict (on behalf of the research team)

Lauryn.Benedict@unco.edu

Professor, Associate Director

Department of Biological Sciences

University of Northern Colorado

So…please consider this chance to provide information about your parrot’s repetitions of your vocalizations! I’m sure that Lauryn would be happy to answer any questions and provide a link to the news articles if the embedding here doesn’t work.

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