A video of a cockatiel singing a famous ringtone melody has us wondering why these birds are so good at mimicking sounds they wouldn't normally hear in their natural environment. Come to think of it, why are these feathered impersonators such copycats in the first place?
"My friend's family has a cockatiel named Lucky," writes Ben Pluimer, who posted the video on Vimeo yesterday. "Whenever Lucky gets upset, he sings an Apple ringtone. It usually happens when they tie their shoes to get ready to leave the house. It's adorable, and also pitch perfect."
He's not wrong - this cockatiel is absolutely nailing it. But it's nothing we haven't seen before. A quick search of the interwebs shows numerous examples of cockatiels singing this exact melody. So is it this song in particular, or something else that drives these birds to sing? We reached out to Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist at Cornell University for an explanation.
"Almost all parrots have a similar social system: an individual bonds and mates with a single other individual, and they spend all of their time together for the rest of their lives," McGowan told Gizmodo. "When they're pets, parrots usually bond with one person - and sometimes bite anyone else who gets near their 'mate'. Pair members imitate each other's calls and come up with their own special talk, kind of like the way human partners do. Pet parrots mimic human speech and other noises because they're trying to be a good mate."
Huh. So in this case, the cockatiel is associating the ringtone as something their "mate" is saying - and it's copying him. Kinda makes sense. As far as the bird is concerned, the sound coming from the phone is indistinguishable from the owner himself. As McGowan says, "Parrots will imitate random sounds in their environment, but I suspect the ringtone has a strong association with the owner."
In terms of how this bird is able to sing this song so well, McGowan says cockatiels have very well-developed sound-producing organs - the syrinx - which allows them to make a wide variety of sounds, whether its a ringtone or even a human voice.
"Song-matching can be very important to birds for various reasons, including the mate-matching," said McGowan. "So, they have a long evolutionary history of doing similar things. This one just happens to be really cute."