Talking with Parrots:A Ten -Year Perspective

Michael Dalton

Abstract


A couple of years ago I dedicated my life to communicating with a talking bird and to better understand her behavior. My wife claims that I am bizarre. "You're obsessed with your bird," my brother said during a recent telephone conversation. Passion and dedication makes me bizarrely obsessed or, if one prefers, obsessively bizarre.

Preliminary efforts at interspecies communication began years ago using apes as study subjects, because humans are infatuated with primates with whom we share characterists. After many efforts, the studies of simians using human language have proven disappointing. There are also studies demonstrating the ability of aquatic mammals to communicate with humans. It is interesting that little research has picked an obvious animal.

A kindergartner asked to name a speaking animal will likely smile and say: "A parrot!" It is surprising that scientists did not begin by investigating birds, because indications over centuries suggest that jays, crows (Savage 1995), magpies, ravens (Hurlbutt 1981 ), mynahs, and many species of parrot-like birds can learn speech.

Information from scientific literature has generally done little to inspire pet bird owners to improve the lives of their birds, to determine more about their birds, or to try to cultivate the language abilities of companion birds. I hope to change that situation.

My macaw and I accumulated experiences using speech and unknowingly substantiated several findings reported in scientific literature. During adventures we discovered new information about parrot abilities too (described below).

Can birds really understand English? My macaw seems to understand and appropriately use human language; this revelation has profound implication for owners of parrot-like birds. I do not ascribe special abilities

to my macaw, rather I infer that many pet birds have comparable abilities - unfortunately, many owners are inattentive to or unaware of their bird's talents. This is one reason, after ten years, to take stock of what Arielle has achieved and to prepare documentation.

She is not a trained animal in any conventional sense, as she does not often speak before strangers; however, she enjoys yakking by herself and periodically demonstrates her mastery of English while talking to me. It has taken several years to grasp the extent of Arielle's ability to use words; the delay was caused by Arielle's handicap of dwelling with a slow learning human.

My fascination with pet birds originated with a Budgie when I was a child. When my own children left home, my wife and I filled our "empty nest" with an African Grey parrot chick that we named Louie. Several months later, unidentified forces compelled me to purchased Arielle, a ten-month-old Blue & Gold macaw, due in part to our developing mutual affection. A beguiling thought is that Arielle selected me to live with from many people she encountered at the pet store.

Did the macaw come to live with me as a happy accident, or does she reside at my home because of some symbiotic relationship destined by cosmic force? For example, I credit Arielle with helping me to recover from a chronic back injury. She sparked my recovery by forcing me to take her outside daily for a walk. Strangers observing us sometimes comment upon our closeness which they judge to be remarkable. Arielle has become a cherished companion, and I am committed to teaching her and to caring for her. In fact, she has given much more to me than I have provided for her.

Her first creative vocal activity was to name me after a few short weeks of residing within our home; it is unlikely that she heard elsewhere the inventive 

label she christened me: Abba. After a short adjustment to her new home, Arielle started using other words that I hadn't attempted to teach her (Dalton 1993). Within a couple of months I felt unsettled by her ability to communicate through sporadic, unexpected, English statements which the bird appeared to relish - one could tell by her exuberance and the twinkle of excitement in her eyes that she enjoyed my bewilderment caused by her unexpected speech.

As a businessman, I was able to take my pets to work with me. To the enchantment of customers, my birds visited at the electronics business over intervals for several years. While at the store, Arielle made a couple of her early unanticipated statements. At the end of one day, she watched as a coworker and I loaded my utility vehicle in preparation for returning home; she astonished us by saying "truck" as we re-entered to close the store. In evaluating the situation, we workers decided that Arielle had communicated her desire to go home in the vehicle.

Since I didn't originally intend to study Arielle's speech, I've been "catching-up" by reading the findings of other investigators. There are several books about the use oflanguage by primates but there are only a couple of books about word use by birds. Most investigators seem reluctant to answer direct questions about their studies because, perhaps, I am not affiliated with an institution.

All inquiry of language by avian subjects leads to Irene Pepperberg, and she deserves much credit for her studies to increase the knowledge of the abilities of birds (Pepperberg 1983, 1990). Her African Grey parrot, "Alex," is a research subject who is taught vocabulary to answer questions for tests designed to reveal specific information about the parrot's mental abilities. Alex demonstrates his comprehension by using about two hundred words. Despite Pepperberg's notable research with Alex, there are few investigations by others and a scarcity of data concerning communicating with birds.

 

 

 


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References


Dalton, Michael. (1993) Adventures With A Blue And Gold Macaw. American Cage-Bird Magazine, November 1993.

de Grahl, Wolfgang. (1987) The Grey Parrot. Neptune City, N.J.: T.F.H. Publications, Inc.

Gould, James L., and Gould, Carol Grant. (1994) The Animal Mind.

New York: Scientific American Library. (One subject is "Washoe.")

Howard, Len. (1953) Birds as Individuals. London:

Readers Union.

Howard, Len. ( 1956) Living With Birds. London:

Collins. (One subject is "Star.")

Hurlbutt, Catherine. ( 1981) Adventures with Talking Birds. Neptune, N.J.: TFH Publications.(The subjects include "Edgar.")

Patterson, Francine and Linden, Eugene. (1981) The Education of Koko. New York: Holy, Rinehart and Winston. (The subject is "Koko.")

Pepperberg, PhD, Irene. ( 1983) Cognition in the Afiican Grey parrot: Preliminary evidence for auditory/vocal comprehension of the class concept. Pschonomic Society, Inc .. Animal Leaming & Behavior 11 (2) pp. 179-185. (The subject is "Alex.")

Pepperberg, PhD, Irene. (1990) Referential mapping:: A technique for attaching functional significance to the innovative utterances of an African Grey parrot. Applied Psycholinguistics 11 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 23-44. (The subject is "Alex.")

Premack, David; and Premack, Ann James. ( 1983) The Mind of an Ape. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. (The subject is "Sarah.")

Savage, Candace. Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays. San Fransisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995. (One subject is a wild bird, another "Macaw.")

Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue; and Lewin, Roger. (1994) Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v


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