Birds may be brainer than you think

parrot

Polly wants a cracker. And while you are at it, listen carefully to see if she says “please” and “thank you,” too.

If you ever wondered if animals could talk, I certainly believe they can, but not the way you think. Animals communicate with each other through sounds and body language and are skilled at reading human body language. But turn the tables and we humans can’t even crack the first guttural sound. We listen, but we haven’t a clue as to what they are really saying unless, of course, they are speaking English.

Fortunately, a few of them do.

Years ago, Koko the Gorilla learned American Sign Language and could communicate basic ideas and emotions to his trainers, like when he had a headache or how sad he felt when his kitten died. Researchers also scratched their heads over a parrot named N’kisi, an African Grey who has a vocabulary of 950 words. (A 3-year-old human child has a vocabulary of about 200 to 300 words.) Scientists said that N’kisi was one of the most advanced users of the human language in the entire animal world. And apparently N’kisi has a sense of humor, too. One day, while watching another parrot swinging upside down from his perch, N’kisi said “You got to put this bird on the camera.”

African Grey Parrots can live 50 years and are believed to mate for life. What that means for birds in captivity is that they sometimes bond with an owner who may not outlive them. Often, captive parrots live with many different owners during their lifetimes, causing them considerable stress. One thing is for sure, if they have even a smattering of N’kisi’s intelligence, we are not providing for their mental stimulation by keeping them locked in a cage all day.

During Hurricane Katrina, a Mexican Red-Headed Amazon named Gringo spent about five weeks in my office. During the first week, he was quiet. After the second week, Gringo began singing and asking questions. And I felt compelled to sing along and answer him.

During the final weeks of our friendship, he yelled “goodbye” when I left the office and “come here” if he could hear me, but not see me. One day, I was visiting with someone just outside the door when he yelled for me to “come here” three or four times. I peeked into the door and said, “Stop Gringo. I am talking with someone. I will be back in a minute.” I don’t know what I was expecting him to do, but he sat quietly until I returned. And then perhaps sensing I was not happy at his nagging, he slowly re-engaged me by singing my favorite songs. After only a few weeks time, he learned how to soothe me.

Do all parrots talk? No, most parrots squawk loudly and mimic a few choice words. And they are never words of your choice.

Should one consider getting a parrot? No. Few humans can commit to a loved one for 50 years of marriage; imagine having a parrot for an entire lifetime. Since parrots can mate for life, they are obviously the more committed species: sadly, people get rid of them, as they do unwanted dogs and cats.

Overall though, I am glad that we are opening up to the idea that animals have an intelligence deeper than our current understanding. Some animals are at least trying to communicate with us. And someday, when we break the code, we might actually figure out how to communicate with them.

And what will Polly want then?

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