Our Parrots Are Not “Bird Brains”

I’ve been following Irene Pepperberg’s studies on parrot intelligence with bated breath for years. “More Than Mimicry?” was the subject of a recent piece in our local newspaper on some of her work. The inclusion of a question mark in the title startled me and made me feel a bit irritated. I’m very sure the author of the essay doesn’t have a pet bird!

If Ms Pepperberg’s comprehensive and thoroughly performed research aren’t enough proof that parrot vocalizations are meaningful, every pet bird owner has a collection of anecdotes to back up their belief that birds have meaningful ideas.

Because humans are so preoccupied with caring for breeding couples and their offspring, our pet birds get little or no formal instruction. We communicate to them while providing daily care, and they can see and hear our family activities. They surely repeat what they hear us say. Their right use of words and phrases is what makes them so outstanding.

Willie, our African Gray, is our best illustration of clever speech usage. When one of the family approaches toward the outside door followed by our dog Foxy he constantly asks “Do you want to go for a walk?”. “Well, see you all later,” he says as we take guests to the same door they are departing. Unless the phone rings, he never says hello. When my mother enters the home and I am not there, he exclaims, “Linda! Linda!” loudly. When he sees me, he says a courteous “How are you?” to Mother.

Don, my husband, has a limited quantity of tolerance when it comes to technical stuff. Willie was upstairs providing the “expletive deleted” kind remarks that frequently accompany these modest duties as he struggled downstairs with a drill that had lost its charge and broken pieces. Don was not using the terms Willie was shouting because he respects my Mother’s concerns to this sort of speech. Willie had heard them before and knew just when they would suit Don’s mood.

These instances aren’t exclusive to African Grays. Gonzo, our Amazon with the yellow nape, begins yelling “I’d want some! I’d like some! “as soon as I begin supper preparations. When I go into the kitchen with young birds to feed, he keeps repeating words like “There you go.” and “Was that good?” in his softest voice. He cocks his head to one side, staring down at the chicks while making gentle, cooing sounds and murmuring “Nice kids.”.

Shula, our large Triton Cockatoo, often calls our dog by utilizing his dominating, male voice and loud whistling. When his mood changes, he uses his enticing sweet voice to summon Foxy to his cage. He leans down to her in this moment, giving morsels of food or even his toys to the dog. Foxy soon understood which commands to follow and which to disregard. She is a really good small dog. We almost never have to use a harsh order or a coaxing voice to get her to come when we call. The shift in tone seems to be entirely Shula’s initiative.

Our Red Lorie, Roja, is a very busy and vocal bird, but he only calls the cat or dog when he sees them. When I approach his cage, he requests for kisses. When I have a cold, he coughs and sneezes with me, but never by himself. Despite his constant preoccupation with gymnastics and toys, he never misses any of my activities.

Ms Pepperberg is said to be working on proving that parrots communicate with one another. Again, I know this to be true despite the lack of scientific evidence. Roja, the Lorie, has lately acquired an unpleasant habit of furiously pumping his swing from side to side, thudding loudly on the cage bars. Willie, the Gray, reacts to this conduct by exclaiming, “Oh, Roja, stop that!” in a disgusted tone. Roja then adds loud shrieks to the din he’s making, glaring at Willie as if he were a recalcitrant kid. Willy stops admonishing Roja to stop when I resolve this “conflict” by covering Roja’s cage and the noise stops.

The entry door and the section where the smaller birds are kept in our enormous aviary are out of sight of the Macaws and Cockatoos at the other end. When the birds see that feedings are beginning, they all scream in unison. Out of sight of the feeder, the bigger birds soon pick up their versions of the smaller birds’ feeding calls. When the aviary is opened for normal maintenance and there is no major protest from people around, the bigger birds go about their business as usual. We must infer that some type of communication is taking place.

My Mother’s Cockatiel aviary was set up in such a way that just one pair in the end cage could watch her come through the garden. When one couple recognized her and began yelling out, the whole room erupted in applause. The last two acted as scouts, informing the others that the supplier of goods was on her way.

We take our pet birds out on a roofed patio next to the living room whenever the weather allows. Every day, if you aren’t aware that just the birds are on the patio, you will assume that a gathering of humans is taking place. The birds chirp and giggle, clearly having a good time. Little Girl, a bashful little citron Cockatoo, seldom says anything. Although we cannot decipher all of the jumbled babble because, like people in a group, they all prefer to communicate at the same time, we often hear her name. When she was no longer a member of the group, the use of her name in the “discussion” ceased. Perhaps this is an overly romantic view of their actions, but it is plausible that they were attempting to engage Little Girl in the festivities.

Many bird enthusiasts, I’m sure, have more compelling tales to share. I am certain that they will all join me in wishing Irene Pepperberg’s efforts to persuade behavioral experts and the general public that our birds are much more than mimics a success. We agree with her that the term “bird brained” should no longer be used in a derogatory manner.

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