Pet parakeets mimic more than just speech. Budgerigars, or budgies, a parakeet species native to Australia, also mirror each other’s yawns. The budgie is the first non-mammal discovered to be susceptible to contagious yawning.
Lots of animals yawn, which scientists speculate could serve as a way to increase oxygen to the brain and perhaps cool the brain down. However, contagious yawning—a social phenomenon that may be related to empathy—has only been observed in four mammal species. Humans, chimps, dogs, and rats all begin to yawn if they witness another animal do it. Now a team of psychologists from the State University of New York at Oneonta report in the journal Animal Cognition that parakeets can make each other yawn, too.
Image Credit: Andrew Gallup
First, the researchers set up pairs of birds next to each other in cages. Some birds could see each other, but other pairs were blocked off. Sometimes the pairs were birds who lived in a flock together, while on other days the birds were strangers. When the birds could see each other, they were more likely to yawn within a five-minute span of each other, suggesting that yawning is, in fact, a contagious behavior for budgies. Unlike dogs and chimps, the budgies didn’t seem to be biased toward yawning in response to their friends. They were equally likely to catch a yawn from a strange bird as from one in their own flock.
In the second test, budgies were shown videos of other budgies; previous studies had shown the birds would respond to video as they would to a live bird. One four-and-a-half-minute video showed a supercut of a yawning bird, while the control video showed clips of the budgie doing other activities. When the video showed a budgie yawning, the test birds were significantly more likely to yawn themselves.
“Yawning in response to sensing or thinking about the action in others may represent a primitive form of empathy,” the researchers write, concluding that budgies might provide a good model to study empathetic processing.
Banner image from Gallup et. al, Animal Cognition (2015)