My last post focused on monkeys and the biological reasons why man’s closest genetic cousin lacks the ability to utter a word. With films such as ‘Planet of the Apes’ and other such fiction broaching this topic, it was curious to me why evolution hadn’t taken monkeys down the same ‘audible speaking’ path as humans. My research concluded that while simians have speech-ready voice boxes, they do not have speech-ready brains. Parrots, on the other hand are a different story.
Not a Birdbrain!
Birds have been considered by many — including biologists — to register on the low end of the intelligence scale — hence the term "birdbrain."
But parrots, particularly African Grays not only have the vocal genetic apparatus to speak words, their brains also have the ability to understand some of the words they learn from their masters. Contrary to popular belief, these extraordinary birds are not only mimics, they are thinkers too — and as such — at this point in their evolution, they can talk circles around monkeys.
Alex, one of smartest African Grays to date . . .
One such African Gray named Alex lived to 30 years of age. He was trained to speak by behaviorist Dr. Irene Pepperberg of the University of Arizona. It was Pepperberg’s belief that Alex’s ability to vocalize was the results of his thinking, not mere mimicry.
Pebberberg’s book Alex & Me is a remarkable true story, that follows the extraordinary bond between a psychologist and and her pet parrot. Her ground-breaking research with this bird opened up a new avenue of research, as it disproved the accepted wisdom of our times.
For all the naysayers, Pepperberg delineates how Alex had not only an astonishing ability to communicate, but also the cognitive insight to interpret and understand complex ideas. This book has continued to appear on bestseller lists for over 7 years since it was first published in 2009, two years after Alex’s death.
At the time his death — which was somewhat untimely since African Grays have been known to live to 60 years old — Alex learned over 100 words. And not only did he understand shapes, colors and the materials of certain objects, he could also give a correct answer when a particular object was presented to him in different colors and shapes.
Pepperberg’s findings concluded that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old human and had matured to the emotional level of a two-year old.
There are numerous anecdotes that prove Pepperberg’s thesis. For instance, when she instructed Alex to “calm down” one day, he snapped back emphatically:” Don’t tell me to calm down!”
On another occasion, it was documented that Alex remains the only animal known to ask question about himself. Upon seeing himself in a mirror, Alex questioned quizzically: “What color?” When he was told his feathers were the color “gray,” he never forgot the word and used it often to describe himself.
Monkey See, Monkey do . . .
So while monkeys can probably understand more commands than birds, and while some apes can learn to use sign language to express hundreds of words, it appears that birds are not as ‘brain dead’ as some have believed. Like monkeys, evolution-wise, they are ‘work in progress.’ But dissimilar to our genetic cousins, they have an uncanny ability to understand what they are articulating. So the next time you try to teach your parrot, “Polly wants a cracker,” just remember to feed them that cracker, so they can truly understand the cause and effect, before they start repeating it ad infinitum — just because!