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NMSU biology professor lends expertise to PBS documentary 'Parrot Confidential'

  • By Isabel A. Rodriguez
  • 575-646-7066
  • idarling@nmsu.edu
  • Nov 11, 2013
Tim Wright searches for parrots

New Mexico State University professor Tim Wright, who studies the genetic relationship of parrots and vocalization, will appear in an upcoming PBS documentary titled "Parrot Confidential" and airing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 13 on KRWG-TV.

An associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' biology department, Wright served as a consultant and source on the project, filmed in Costa Rica earlier this year. The documentary about captive parrot welfare and wild parrot conservation was made by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Allison Argo.

"Allison was looking for locations in which to film parrots to complement the work she was doing," he said. "As I understand, it focuses on the issues they face as pets and issues owners face. She was also interested in how our habit of keeping parrots as pets impacts parrot populations, and what happens to parrots when they're brought into captivity."

Wright noted that parrots in zoos are not considered "in captivity" because the motivation for keeping birds is different; zoologists are interested in conservation and the education of the general public.

Argo learned about Wright through his parrot research, and contacted him to be part of the documentary. Wright assisted the crew in shooting scenes of birds roosting and nesting. He and the production crew happened to be in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica at the same time, and they spent a week in February filming the footage. The crew was careful not to disturb the birds as they tried to get the best shots for the film.

"Dr. Wright added a critical voice to the film, grounding the domestic parrot stories with his scientific research in the wild," Argo said in a press release about "Parrot Confidential."

"He shared his years of studying Yellow-naped Amazon parrots and their complex language skills. Wright also provided a sobering first-hand account of poaching and the impact it has on wild populations. Under his long-distance guidance, a Costa Rican field assistant (Ivannia Sandoval) went into the field daily, searching for yellow-napes."

"I'm excited to see the outcome," Wright said. "I love doing field work and being out in the wild, and I realize there's still a lot to learn. It remains a challenge trying to figure out why smart, mobile animals behave the way they do."

The scenes were filmed on a Costa Rican ranch, where the parrots are accustomed to a certain amount of human activity, but are also not exposed to many predators.

Wright's own work is focused on parrot vocalization and how the birds use vocalization in the wild. He has worked with many NMSU students on the project over the last nine years, including doctoral students Christine Dahlin and Alejandro Salinas-Melgoza, whose work has added new insights into parrot behavior. Their research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the World Parrot Trust and the National Institutes of Health.

"Parrots are particularly interesting because they have evolved the ability to learn vocalization," Wright said. "That's what makes them popular as pets. They mimic us and try to learn to be part of our social group. Parrots in the wild focus on mediating social interactions with other parrots. They often do that by converging vocalizations; they learn to match each other in the same way that humans learn local lingo."

Although he has not seen the entire film, Wright said the documentary examines the issues parrots face when they're kept as pets, as well as the issues faced by parrot pet-owners - jealousy, for example. Parrots have been described as having the emotional age of a 3-year-old child.

"Parrots are bright, but not always in very good control of their emotions," he explained. "Nor are they adept and communicating what they need. They're capable of mimicking sounds, but don't form complete sentences or express complex thoughts."

Parrots also form tight pair bonds, and will try to do the same with humans, Wright said. For example, if they bond with a man, they may hate his romantic partner. Speaking from a personal perspective, Wright said he's had parrots as pets before, but grew wary of keeping them when his first child was born.

"I was nervous about little fingers near a big beak," he said.

Wright views the film as an opportunity to promote parrot conservation and to encourage individuals to weigh the decision carefully when considering parrots as pets, particularly as some parrot species live up to 50 years in captivity.

"It's important that people think carefully about whether they're ready for a long-term and very intensive commitment. People often have close social bonds with their parrots, but they consistently underestimate the level of care necessary. It's more demanding than having a dog or cat."

Argo's past work include: "Chipanzees: An Unnatural History," "Wisdom of the Wild" and "The Urban Elephant," for which she won Emmy awards for outstanding cultural or informational program and outstanding achievement in directing.

The trailer for the film "Parrot Confidential," is available at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/parrot-confidential/parrot-confidential/8496/