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Monday, September 22, 2014

Watch Your $^&*#$ Language

"I'm going to kill you..."

That's never a phrase that you want to hear behind you in a dark room.  It's especially disconcerting when the voice that says it isn't even human.

I have no idea what prompted Sweet-Stuff, our Education Department scarlet macaw, to say that to me that one day.  In part because I'd always thought we were close buds (which never meant that I trusted him).  The other part was that I'd never heard him say that before... or after.

When people think about parrots, they think of two things - bright colors and talking.  Mostly the talking.  Perhaps cartoons and movies and jokes have overstated the power, but there is still a fair bit of uncertainty as to how much parrots can learn and how much they can understand of what they are saying.  The traditional viewpoint was that parrots were just... well... parroting, repeating sounds without any understanding of what they are saying... sort of like very small children.  Also like very small children, they have a talent of picking up on the least-appropriate words possible and repeating them.

Lately, research has suggested that parrots aren't the bird-brains we all think they are, and that some actually do possess considerable understanding of what the human sounds they make mean. The poster-parrot for this school of thought is the late Alex, an African grey parrot who was under the care of scientist Irene Pepperberg.  During her years of studying Alex, Pepperberg reported Alex (Avian Language EXperiment)  learned over 100 words and what they meant in relationship to one another.  He could use words to indicate which of two objects was larger, for example, or different colors and materials.  Like many sign-language-using apes, he also coined phrases for new objects by combining the names of objects he knew.

The ability of parrots to talk depends on the species and the circumstance in which they are raised (birds kept with other birds seem more likely to focus on each other and less likely to mimic people, I've noticed).  It amazes me how many people will talk to the parrots at our zoo and are baffled that the birds aren't simply echoing back every word they say to it.  I try to explain that the parrots see (and hear) hundreds of people a day, and that there is no reason for them to especially care about the sounds that one particular visitor is making.

Should zoos teach their parrots (and other "talking" birds, like ravens and mynahs) to talk?  Touchy question... some people say absolutely not.  Using human speech isn't a natural behavior, they feel, and it sends the message that parrots are great pets.  Others feel that it highlights the natural mimicry abilities of parrots and is useful for demonstrations and education programs.  Besides, no matter what, most zoo macaws I've worked with have picked up a few words - "Hello", "Good Bye", "Pretty Bird" are the standard phrases - and repeat them whenever they want to.

As Sweet-Stuff showed me that one day, you can never tell what a parrot will take into his head to mimic.  The moral of the story, however, seems to be to be careful what you say around the zoo.  You never can tell who is listening...

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