An Otterbein University professor and her students are using a common pet-store bird to study vocal learning in parrots.
And the feathered friends have built a following on social media in the process.
The colorful birds called budgerigars, or budgies, are a long-tailed variety of parakeet native to Australia and come in a variety of vibrant colors. Commonly sold in pet stores, the short-life span birds with brains the size of a pea excel at mimicking and communicating sounds.
Anna Young, an assistant professor of biology and Earth science, said she started studying the birds while she was completing her doctorate degree, because she was interested in studying vocal learning in parrots.
"They're really good at learning any sound they hear a lot," she said of the budgies.
Young brought the budgies to Otterbein in the summer of 2013 to be studied by her and students. An open aviary, where the birds can be seen by the public, also was put in place.
According to a Facebook page devoted to the birds, as part of the study, the male budgies were put in sound chambers for a half hour once a week so their calls could be recorded. The foam in the chambers helped to block outside noise. Their calls could then be analyzed by computer software.
Unlike other varieties of parrots, the budgies cannot directly imitate the tone of a sound or be as accurate as other species, Young said.
She said the birds are very social and will adapt and learn calls when placed with a new flock of birds.
Young said sometimes, when a new bird is placed with a flock, the primary call will change. She said members will either change the flock call to adapt to the new bird, the new bird will learn the existing call or a hybrid will emerge.
"They're really interesting and complicated in how they do it," she said.
Despite the fact the birds are on display, exposed to students and visitors of the campus, Young said she and the students who study the birds try to be as hands off with the budgies as possible, so the studies are not influenced.
Alyssa Carmona, an undergraduate student who will be graduating from the university's zoology and conservation-science program, has worked extensively with the budgies during her time at Otterbein.
Carmona started a study focusing on social interaction with the birds by putting them into small groups, to see how the size of the groups impacted their calls.
She said she used small cages constructed out of chicken wire and placed the cages of birds into a modified large cooler with a door and foam insulation. She recorded their sounds through a microphone that was placed through the drain of the cooler.
"Since I'm graduating early, I didn't think I could do it any justice," she said on finishing her study.
She said she's hoping another undergraduate will pick up where she will leave off.
Young said the importance of studying the budgies is to ultimately learn more about the function of vocal learning.
"There are not that many animals in the world that are vocal learners," she said.
To follow the budgies on their journey visit their Facebook page, facebook.com/ otterbeinbudgies/, and their Twitter https://twitter.com/otter budgies?lang=en