Monk parakeets risk losing their hard-won social standing if they are absent from their flock for just eight days. And the highest-ranking birds lose the most status during their brief absence.
Scientists studied three groups of captive monk parakeets in 2021 and 2022. The study, led by postdoctoral researcher Annemarie van der Marel at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, identified each bird’s status in the flock’s dominance hierarchy by observing their interactions and quantifying rank using networks of aggression.
“They’re loud. They are very affiliative toward some members of the group but can be quite grumpy towards others. There’s a lot of social drama,” van der Marel said.
The study was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.
The field crew recorded 100,000 fights over two years of experimentation.
“Monk parakeets are very feisty. They fight all the time,” said Elizabeth Hobson, a behavioral ecologist and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. “They generally don’t have knock-down, drag-out fights, they’re just constantly squabbling.”
Typically, an aggressor will sidle up to another bird and threaten to peck it. Often, the other bird flees before the interaction becomes physical.
“We call it a displacement. It’s clear who the winners and losers are,” Hobson said
Once the hierarchy had formed in the social groups, the researchers removed birds of different social standing for eight days before returning them and observing their reintegration to the flock.
“We predicted that if there was something intrinsic about the bird that gave it high rank, it should have been able to waltz back in and easily retake its former rank,” Hobson said.
Unlike some animal societies where the biggest individual is often dominant, researchers found that size doesn’t matter as much among monk parakeets. Instead, they get ahead through sheer force of will.
High-ranked birds had a much more difficult reintegration into their former groups. While lower-ranked birds also experienced a decline in status, it was not nearly as dramatic as in higher-ranked birds.
“The group treats them very differently,” Hobson said. “In general, when we reintroduce the top-ranked bird, the group responds with a lot of aggression towards that reintroduced bird. A lot of bullying happens.
“But when we reintroduced a middle- or low-ranked bird, we didn’t see nearly the kind of focused aggression on that bird as we saw in the top-ranked bird,” she said.
Hobson said it’s possible members of the flock don’t perceive the lower-ranked birds as a threat to their own standing.
“When we take a bird out, there’s a power vacuum and everything shifts to accommodate it,” co-author and UC doctoral student Chelsea Carminito said. “When that bird suddenly comes back, the birds at the top don’t want to relinquish their top rank and will defend their position.”
Carminito is studying the behavior of monk parakeets to learn ways to improve their care and the care of other social birds in captivity and zoos and research centers.
“My interest is how to reduce stress in captive situations when you have to remove a bird,” she said.
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