We’re convinced that our birds are intelligent. By intelligent we mean the ability to learn facts and skills and apply them, especially when this ability is highly developed.
Here’s a look at Parrots’ intelligence from my personal experience, and also from some recent research on intelligence in wild and captive Parrots.
Speaking in context
Let’s take talking. Parrots aren’t the only talking birds. Mynahs, corvids and especially the lyre bird imitate human language and activities. A poignant example - the lyre bird imitating perfectly the sound of a chain saw that it’s heard and probably seen whilst being used to destroy its Indonesian habitat. Could you imitate the sound of a chainsaw?
Parrots will speak in any relevant language. I’ll stick to English although plenty of birds speak Japanese, Arabic and any other language they’ve heard spoken around them.
Jayne Colgate Boulton gave me some homely examples of Ronnie, African Grey, using words appropriately. Jayne shares her life with a mixed flock of psittacines. She was cage cleaning with Ronnie perched on the door. Jayne knocked against the door, jarring Ronnie. ‘Be careful,’ said Ronnie. ‘Sorry,’ Jayne replied. ‘Oh, be careful,’ the Parrot repeated. Jane explains that Ronnie hears her say “be careful” when she drops something and uses the phrase in the right context.
Ronnie is caged at supper time to stop her stealing from Jayne’s plate. ‘Wanna come out’ called Ronnie, several times. After being ignored she pleaded: “wanna come out, pull-ee-ee-se.’ Of course, she got her way.
In this example the Parrot uses language to express a purposeful wish. I don’t think that my birds ever do that, Artha and Casper use words to mimic us, with no ulterior motive other than to attract attention or please us.
Ronnie lives in a mixed flock. Sole birds are often reported to have vast vocabularies. Fourteen year old N’kisi, African Grey, lives in New York with her carer Morgana. N’Kisi asked Jane Goddall, who was visiting the apartment, ‘Got a chimp.’ Morgana had explained to N’kisi about Goodall’s work with chimpanzees before she arrived. N’kisi’s vocabulary now tops 1000 words.
The Parrot who probably did the most to expand our understanding was Alex, the African grey whose name is an acronym for Animal learning experiment.
An anecdote about him: In December 1980, Kathy Davidson, one of the laboratory students, took him to the washroom. Alex noticed the mirror for the first time; He cocked his head back and forth a few times to get a fuller look, and said, ‘What’s that?’
‘That’s you, ‘You’re a Parrot.’
‘What colour,’ asked the bird.
‘Grey. You’re a grey Parrot, Alex.’ And that’s how Alex learned the colour grey.
Alex was captive bred, purchased from a pet shop at a year old. Although bought as a laboratory research animal, the relationship between Alex and Dr Irene Pepperberg deepened. ‘He became my colleague,’ says Pepperberg.
She has never claimed that Alex uses language in a human fashion. But the two-way communications code developed between bird and researchers and later with the other Greys who joined the lab works.
Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex has given incontrovertible proof to everyone but the most unreasonable sceptics that Alex performed various cognitive tasks as well as the great apes and at the level of a young child.
His astounding abilities were shown up through his use of language. Alex could count up to six, knew colours, shapes and qualities of objects. He could tell you what material an object was made of. Towards the end of his life he appeared to have an awareness of the concept of zero.
Speaking Parrot fashion
I taught Artha when young to answer the question, ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ with the reply, ‘I won’t tell you’. She transposed this exchange into, ‘What’s the meaning of Parrot? I won’t tell you.’ She also replied to ‘How does the doggie go?’ with ‘Grr meow.’ Was she Parroting or using humour?
The brain-to body size ratio of Parrots species and corvids is comparable to that of higher primates. It used to be said that birds cannot be intelligent because they have a relatively small cerebral cortex - the part of our brain that makes us clever.
Then scientists discovered that birds use a different part of the brain, the medio- rostral, as the seat of their intelligence.
Harvey J. Karten, a neuroscientist from the University of California, discovered while studying bird physiology that the lower part of the avian brain is functionally similar to that in humans.
Not only have Parrots demonstrated intelligence through scientific testing of their language-using ability, but species of Parrot such as Keas and Cockatoos are also highly skilled at using tools and solving puzzles.
Learning in early life is essential for all Parrots, and much of that learning is how to behave in a flock. Several species form crêches made up of several broods. In this nursery situation the chicks learn social skills. A conscientious breeder like Barrett Watson, who hand rears chicks destined as pets, keeps them with other youngsters in the nursery. So his captive bred birds grow up knowing that they are birds.
Foraging behaviour is generally learnt from parents. With the larger Parrots like Cockatoos and Macaws, the weaned chicks can fly with their parents for months and even years in family groups. Parrots evolved those large brains which they need in the forest to learn the site geography and to learn where ripe fruits are found.
Play forms a large part of learning in Parrots; it can be solitary, and related to motor skills, or an activity with other young birds. Species engage in play fights or wild flights to practice predator evasion.
Captive Parrots reared in isolation, if deprived of stimuli, don’t learn these skills and so they may develop harmful behaviours like self-plucking and screaming. Captive Parrots require an enriched environment to remain stimulated through youth to maturity.
New Zealand Keas (nestor nobilis) are reputed to be amongst the cleverest birds of all. Researchers were astounded when they set up an apparatus in which to get the treat one Kea had to pull a string to raise a lever so the other one could extract the food. And they succeeded.
I have witnessed co-operation in my own flock. Biscuits are kept in a tin. Biscuits are not good for Parrots so I put the tin upside down on the kitchen table. When Artha and Casper Grey are free in the house in the evening, they’ve learned how to open the tin by each raising a corner at the same moment, flipping it upright, raising the lid and extracting a biscuit. The tin now remains shut inside the cupboard.
To read part two of Dot's blog on Parrot intelligence, click here.