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These mobile games are for the birds| GuyWhoKnowsThings

Parrots have a lot in common with small children. These intelligent birds can learn to recognize colors and shapes, manipulate objects, develop a large vocabulary, and make their needs known at incredibly high volumes. They are also playful, intelligent and curious; Without extensive cognitive enrichment, they quickly become bored.

That's why owners of pet parrots sometimes resort to a strategy familiar to parents: look for the nearest available display. And some owners have found that they can keep their birds busy with mobile games, drawing apps, and music-making programs designed for young children. “Apps for kids are quite popular,” said Rébecca Kleinberger, a scientist at Northeastern University who studies How animals interact with technology..

But apps designed for humans may not be ideal for parrots, which tend to use their tongue to interact with touch screens. This results in a variety of unique touch behaviorsDr. Kleinberger and her colleagues reported in a new study. (The research, a collaboration between scientists at Northeastern and the University of Glasgow, has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but will be presented at a conference in May.)

The results suggest that mobile apps have potential as an enrichment tool for parrots, but would need to be tailored to the birds' specific biology.

“How do we make technology work for their unique bodies and their unique needs?” Dr. Kleinberger said.

To conduct the study, scientists created a customized version of a mobile app designed to help researchers and designers collect information about how humans interact with touch screens. The app displayed a series of red circles; The birds' task was to touch them as quickly and accurately as possible, while the app collected data on how the parrots touched the screen.

Owners of 20 pet parrots encouraged the birds to touch the circles by handing out treats. (In most cases, the rewards were edible (peanut butter, yogurt, or pine nuts, for example), but the birds had their own idiosyncratic preferences. “There was one bird that wasn't very food-motivated and instead , responded best to just applause and praise,” Dr. Kleinberger said).

Once the birds mastered the game, the researchers began collecting data on their performance and tactile behaviors. The researchers found that the parrots were less accurate than humans, but they performed well enough that it was clear that they were not randomly tapping the screen.

And the birds' tactile behaviors differed from those of humans in several ways. For one thing, the parrots had a tendency to use their tongues to quickly and repeatedly hit the same target. Although the idea has not yet been tested, Dr. Kleinberger hypothesized that the behavior could be a byproduct of the way parrots use rapid tongue movements to manipulate seeds.

The birds also used lighter pressure than human users, which meant the software didn't always register their strikes, frustrating the birds, Dr. Kleinberger said. They also dragged their touches more often., moving their tongues across the screen before raising them again. “It was really a lot of screen licking,” Dr. Kleinberger said. Designers who create software specifically for parrots could use that knowledge to create a game “made to be licked,” he added.

The researchers also found that while humans tend to be faster when targets get closer, for parrots there seemed to be an inherent delay between reaching targets, even those that were close together. Video footage revealed that the birds tended to “touch and retreat,” touching the screen and then moving away from it before aiming for the next target. The behavior makes sense given how close the eyes are to the tongue, Dr. Kleinberger said; Birds may need to move away from the screen to recalibrate after reaching each target.

Many parrot owners reported that their birds seemed to enjoy using the app, although some seemed to lose interest over time. Dr. Kleinberger said she hoped that designing software specifically for parrots could help increase the birds' participation and enjoyment.

“A lot of research on animals and technology is trying to understand: What can animals do?” Dr. Kleinberger said. “And what I always try to do is reframe the question: What can we do for them?”

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