- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - While it’s common for the nation’s heavyweight higher education institutions to rake in National Science Foundation grants, it’s exceedingly rare for smaller, younger institutions like the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

The Brownsville Herald (http://bit.ly/2lZSzYy ) reports that Karl Berg, UTRGV assistant professor of ornithology and ecology, has managed to land one nonetheless - for his work in Venezuela on green-rumped parrotlets, a pocket-sized parrot species also the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation.

UTRGV received word last November of the $571,373 NSF grant. The title of the project, under Berg’s direction, is “IOS Animal Behavior: Sibling Influence on Vocal Babbling and Vocal Development.”

The research is highly specialized, though in a nutshell Berg is studying how parrotlet siblings learn from each other based on complex vocalizations, or babbling, in the nest and how it impacts cognitive development and intelligence.

Parrots are highly intelligent animals, thus it may be possible to glean lessons on human cognitive development from Berg’s research, which questions the conventional scientific view that baby parrots (and humans) learn language exclusively from their parents.

“No doubt we have things to learn from parrots,” Berg said.

He’s also done research in Ecuador, where he lived for 10 years, and is conducting research on red-crowned parrots right here in Brownsville with a grant from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. The official name of the study is “Enhancing Habitat for Red-Crowned Parrots in South Texas.”

It might not be obvious from the large, noisy flocks winging over parts of the city, but the red-crowned parrot is a parrot in crisis, Berg said. The species was identified by scientists as globally endangered 25 years ago and things have only gotten worse since then, he said.

“The red-crowned parrot is endemic to basically the state of Tamaulipas,” Berg said. “For any kind of bird that’s a small area to be completely restricted to. That’s a very small range. Parrotlets, for example, there’s probably a billion of the birds we study because they’re distributed over such a wide area.”

Debate continues over how the red-crowned parrot came to Brownsville, whether it was a case of wild birds crossing the river or captive birds escaping their cages, he said.

“It could be somewhat of a native population,” Berg said. “It could be an introduced population. Regardless, the numbers in the Valley have gotten so high that some people speculate there could actually be more here than in Mexico.”

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Information from: The Brownsville Herald, http://www.brownsvilleherald.com

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