OUR PARROTS ARE NOT "BIRD BRAINS"

by Linda Greeson

I have for years followed with interest reports on Irene Pepperberg's research on the intelligence of parrots. A recent article in our local newspaper reporting on some of her work was titled "More Than Mimicry ?". What surprised me, and left me more than a little indignant was the use of the question mark with the title. I am sure that the author of the article does not own a pet bird!

If Ms Pepperberg's extensive and scientifically conducted experiments are not sufficient evidence that parrot vocalizations are meaningful, every pet bird owner has a collection of stories to support the conviction that birds think meaningful thoughts.

Because we are so busy with the care of breeding pairs and their babies our pet birds receive little or no formal training. We talk to them while giving them daily care and they are within sight and hearing of our family activities. They undoubtedly mimic the words they hear from us. It is their appropriate use of words and phrases that is so impressive.

Willie, our African Gray, is our most outstanding example of intelligent use of speech. When one of the family goes toward the outside door accompanied by our dog Foxy he invariably asks "Do you want to go for a walk?". When we accompany guests to the same door as they are leaving his remark is "Well, see you all later.". He never says "Hello" unless the phone rings. When my Mother enters the house and I am not in the immediate area he calls out "Linda! Linda!" in a loud voice. When I am within his sight, he greets Mother with a polite "How are you?".

My husband, Don, has a short supply of patience with things mechanical. While he was struggling with a drill that lost its charge and broken bits downstairs, Willie was upstairs supplying the "expletive deleted" type words that often accompany these small tasks. Since Don respects my Mother's objections to this type vocabulary, he was not using the words Willie was loudly calling out. Willie had heard them on other occasions and knew just when they fit Don's mood.

These examples are not at all limited to African Grays. Gonzo, our yellow naped Amazon, starts calling "Want some! Want some!" as soon as I start preparations for dinner. When I am entering the kitchen with baby birds to feed he uses his sweetest voice to keep repeating phrases like "There you go." and "Was that good?". He cocks his head to one side, looking down at the chicks while making soft, cooing noises and saying "Nice babies.".

Shula, our big Triton Cockatoo, likes to call our dog, often using his commanding, masculine voice and whistling loudly. When his mood is different, he changes to his coaxing sweet voice to call Foxy over to his cage. In this mood he reaches down to her, offering bits of food or even his toys to the dog. Foxy quickly learned which type command to obey, and which to ignore. She is a most obedient little dog. We rarely, if ever, have to use either a harsh command or a coaxing voice to make her come when called. The change in tone seems to be strictly Shula's idea.

Our Red Lorie, Roja, is a very active and talkative bird, but only calls the cat or the dog when they are within his sight. He asks for kisses whenever I approach his cage. When I have a cold he coughs and sneezes right along with me, but never just on his own. Although he is ever busy with his acrobatics and his toys, he does not miss any of my activities.

Ms Pepperberg is reportedly now working on demonstrating that parrots communicate with each other. Again, without any scientific proof, I know this to be true. Roja, the Lorie, has recently developed an annoying habit of vigorously pumping his swing from side to side, hitting the bars of the cage with loud thumps. Willie, the Gray, responds to this behavior by saying in a tone of disgust "Oh, Roja, stop that.". Roja then adds loud shrieks to the volume of noise he is creating, looking at Willie for all the world like a defiant child. When I settle this "argument" by covering Roja's cage and the noise ceases, Willy stops admonishing Roja to stop.

In our large aviary the entrance door and the area where the smaller birds are housed is out of sight of the Macaws and Cockatoos at the other end. The birds all react with typical cries when they observe that feedings are being started. The larger birds, out of sight of the feeder, immediately pick up their versions of the feeding call from the smaller birds. When entrance to the aviary is made for routine work and there is no general outcry from those near the door, the larger birds go about business as usual. We have to conclude that there is some form of communication going on.

The situation of my Mother's Cockatiel aviary was such that only one pair in the end cage could see her approach through the garden. As soon as this pair spotted her and started calling out, the whole group joined in the noisy welcome. The end pair served as a lookout to inform the rest that the provider of goodies was on her way.

Whenever the weather permits, we group our pet birds in their cages out on a roofed patio adjoining the living room. Every afternoon, if you are not aware that only the birds are on the patio, you will be certain that a group of people are having a party. The birds chatter and laugh, apparently having a wonderful time. One shy little citron Cockatoo we call Little Girl seldom has much to say. Although we cannot interpret all the confusing chatter, for like humans in a group they all tend to talk at once, we hear her name clearly quite often. When she was no longer part of the group the inclusion of her name in the "conversation" quickly stopped. Perhaps it is too fanciful an interpretation of their behavior, but it is possible that they were trying to include Little Girl in the party.

I know that many bird lovers have more numerous and convincing stories to offer. I am sure that they all join me in wishing success to Irene Pepperberg's efforts to convince skeptics among behavioral scientists as well as the general public that our birds are far more than mimics. We join her in wanting them to know that the term "bird brained" should no longer be used in a depreciating way.

 

 

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