Cookie did what many people dream of: the parrot became a star. But he actually did nothing about it. What set him apart? His lifetime: Cookie, who lived at Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, turned 83 years old. Record, says Guinness Book of Records. As a cockatoo, Cookie belonged to a particularly long-lived family of parrots. But why do these birds get so old? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior wanted to know more about this.
For the answer, the researchers worked through an enormous amount of data: the evaluated recordings of 133,818 parrots from over a thousand zoos. From this, they then calculated the life expectancy of 217 of the world’s 356 parrot species.
Not all parrots live long …
It turns out that not all parrots live long. For example, the colorful pygmy parrot is lucky when it celebrates its second birthday. On the other hand, the scarlet macaw and the sulfur cake kadu have extremely long average lifespans of 25 to 30 years. Such an age is usually observed only in very large birds.
In addition to their longevity, parrots are also known for their intelligence. Above all, they are considered to be linguistically gifted animals. The gray parrot Alex has even been hailed as the “bird world’s Einstein”. He could speak more than a hundred English words and form small sentences. He was also able to name 50 different objects, distinguishing between seven colors and five shapes.
Some parrots even get 80 years old
These facts raise the intriguing question: is parrot intelligence related to longevity? This question has so far remained unanswered. “The problem was getting good quality data,” says Simeon Smeele, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior and lead author of the study. Here, the non-profit organization Species360, which manages the world’s largest database of wildlife data from zoos and aquariums, helped. And made their data available to the researchers.
The study found an amazing diversity in life expectancy. “An average age of 30 years is extremely rare in birds of this size,” says Smeele. Some animals even have “a maximum lifespan of over 80 years, which is a respectable age even for humans. These numbers are spectacular when you consider that the average human weighs about 100 times as much.”
Big brain means longevity
The team then analyzed in a large-scale comparative study whether the parrots’ cognitive abilities had an impact on their lifespan. Results: In fact, parrots with large brains had longer lifespans relative to their body size. And since brain size relative to body size can be an indicator of intelligence, it means that these parrots have cognitive abilities that enabled them to be better at solving problems in the wild. On the other hand, other, less clever birds could be dead.
In other words, intelligence enables parrots to live longer. “This supports the idea that larger brains make species more flexible in general and allow them to live longer,” Smeele said. “For example, if they run out of their favorite foods, they can learn to find something new and survive.”
Diet hardly matters
The researchers were surprised that other factors, such as diet or the longer development time required to develop larger brains, did not mean longer lifespan. For in primates, it is the energy costs of the long development period that explain the relationship between brain size and longevity.
And the researchers already have a new topic: Now they want to investigate whether social behavior and so-called cultural learning in parrots can also contribute to a long lifespan. “Birds with large brains can spend more time socially learning foraging techniques that have been known for generations,” Smeele explains. “This longer learning time may also explain the longer life.”
This means that the long learning takes longer, but the birds are also more adaptable. “We are very curious to see if long-lived parrots also have a ‘childhood’ where they have to learn everything from finding and opening nuts to avoiding aggressive behavior from dominant males,” says Smeele.