Dot Schwarz takes a look at Parrot intelligence.
Dr Nathan Emery (Senior lecturer in Cognitive Biology, Queen Mary University of London) puts it like this: ‘The problem may be one of likeness: we look at chimpanzees and it’s like viewing ourselves in a slightly crooked mirror.
But seeing a crow and recognising a fellow clever, sentient and creative being means further diminishing our own superiority and considering life differently. It means recognising that smarts come in all shapes, sizes and species’.
I was researching this topic on the internet. Benni, my handraised Blue and Gold Macaw, almost 5 years old, was on my shoulder. He seemed bored, or was I? So I keyed in ‘sounds of wild Macaws’. YouTube offered 3 minutes of video.
The wild Macaws (Benni’s cousins, Ara Ararauna) were communicating somewhat quietly in some bare branches. Benni watched; he put his head on one side, then said, ‘Hello, Benni, hello, hello’.
We both watched until the end of the clip. What did Benni’s ‘hello’ signify?
My interpretation is that his reaction was more that of a young child than a bird’s: ‘Hello, what is this?’ That’s an anthropomorphic reaction on my part. I am ascribing the same sort of emotions to him as a young child might have from watching a video of similar-looking children.
When you ascribe human emotions to an animal, you arrive slap-bang in front of that mouthful of a word ‘anthropomorphism’, which the dictionary explains means attributing human feelings or behaviours to non-human things. Ascribing human emotions to our pets is so common we are hardly aware of it—my Parrot is lazy, affectionate, cute, aggressive, or mean.
These are all labels—useful in conversation but not accepted by behaviour scientists or serious trainers. A behaviour scientist will tell you that we can never know what a bird is thinking, so we can only describe its behaviour.
Right back to French scientist and philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century, who declared that animals, having no souls were merely automata, through to the modern scientists who decided that animals reacted solely by instinct, many people have failed to accept that animals have consciousness.
I have heard a breeder say, ‘this male Cockatoo is nasty. He attacked the hen and I had to separate them’. I disagree. The Cockatoo has no concept of ‘mean’ or ‘nasty’, he simply wants to mate. In the wild situation, the female would fly off until she is ready for mating. In a cage or a flight, she has nowhere to go, so her mate vents his frustration on her and attacks her.
This is a typical example of using anthropomorphic judgments in a faulty manner.
However, the inflexible view that animals cannot be described in human terms is gradually shifting. Pet owners have always considered their pets to display human emotions.
Anthropomorphism Can Be Useful
What I aim to show in this discussion is how anthropomorphism can be used correctly and usefully. Seeing the similarities between ourselves and our Parrots is a great aid in deepening our understanding and establishing the sort of husbandry that enables the captive Parrot to live comfortably in our environment. Because, however tame they may appear, unlike dogs and cats which have been socialised for generations, Parrots are still wild animals.
Why was it considered important that Homo sapiens differ from every other creature that has evolved on the planet? Here is one explanation from Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal:
‘One reason this whole debate is as heated as it is, relates to its moral implications. When our ancestors moved from hunting to farming, they lost respect for animals and began to look at themselves as the rulers of nature. In order to justify how they treated other species, they had to play down their intelligence and deny them a soul.
It is impossible to reverse this trend without raising questions about human attitudes and practices. We can see this process underway in the halting of biomedical research on chimpanzees and the opposition to the use of killer whales for entertainment’.
Do you spend time with your ‘fids’—feathered kids? Does you bird call you ‘mummy’? Does it want to perch high up so that it can be dominant? Did Polly bite your husband because she hates him? These are all examples of anthropomorphic thinking. Sometimes it can be useful; other times it leads to complications. Parrots do share some human emotions but more often their actions are driven by Parrot behaviour.
Some scientists still claim that animals don’t have thoughts and emotions. However, biologist and author Carl Safina argues that sneering at anthropomorphism risks eroding our empathy with the species that we are helping to wipe out at a rate unseen since the time of the dinosaurs:
‘Great apes have large brains and complex social lives; wolves live in structured families. But herrings don’t have social structures. So we can’t say all animals are the same. But humans are an extreme example of everything. We are simultaneously the most compassionate and the cruellest animal, the friendliest and most destructive; we experience the most grief and cause the most grief. We are a complicated case’.
Certainly, anthropomorphism isn’t always useful. Walt Disney films portray animals as if they are furred or feathered humans with more-or-less human ways of behaving. Mickey Mouse isn’t like any mouse you’ll meet indoors or out. Does it matter?
Yes, if it stops kids from realising what live animals are like; if it prevents them from accepting that animals don’t react like humans in many of their actions. After all, we don’t sniff one another’s bottoms to say ‘hello’! It is wrong to punish a dog for its natural behaviour.
Most children with pets, however, who are properly instructed concerning their particular pets’ needs, can develop into careful caregivers who become be aware of the urgency of conservation and welfare problems not only in their own country but worldwide.
Accepting Animal Intelligence
The refusal of millions of people to accept that animals have awareness and a consciousness (even if it not as developed as ours) is one of the causes (poverty being the other main one) for the global ill-treatment of so many species. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen starving street cats in Rome, overburdened donkeys in Jordan or a bird market in Indonesia.
And animal cruelty does not just happen somewhere else—ask an RSPCA inspector. Once you accept scientific research showing animals’ intelligence, problem-solving ability, awareness, even tool-making abilities (once considered a purely human ability), you can no longer accept casual cruelty or the attitude that ‘it’s only a bird (or cow, or dog, etc).
I believe animals to be capable of empathy—one of human beings’ best capacities. I believe empathy to be an emotion Parrots can express, but it is hard to disentangle inaccurate or imprecise anthropomorphic explanations. Following are some examples from books, from my own flock, and information shared by members of an internet group interested in avian cognition which I believe paint a truer picture of our birds’ capabilities.
Joanna Burger, author of The Parrot Who Owns Me, writes that when she was sick in bed with Lyme disease, Tiko, her Red-lored Amazon, would preen her hair strand by strand.
Casper, my African Grey, reacted at the sight of Solomon, a wild-caught rescue bird who died in the aviary of Aspergillosus. (We presume he caught the disease during the voyage from West Africa.) Casper, at 8 months old, flew down to where Solomon lay dead, trying to open Solomon’s beak and appearing to blow into it.
In another example, a wild-caught male Conure attacked by his mate was hiding in one of the female’s laying boxes, behind a wooden barrier on the ground. Another male Ringneck and a Rosella flew down to the nest box and perched beside him for some time. (The Conure later died).
Casper also seems to show compassion for his comrades. Mirt, the Timneh, had a leg injury, so I brought her inside to recover in a large cage stuffed with willow branches, with the door kept open. Casper spent most of the day, sitting on the open cage door, where he would not normally perch.
Pat Anderson, an American Associate Professor of Anthropology in Illinois and a fervent Parrot carer and trainer, who like myself believes Parrots can use our language appropriately, gave some examples of Parrots using empathy.
She writes of Otis, the Quaker Parrot: . He knows he is a bird but accompanies author on her walk
‘One day (August 1999), when I was very tired and depressed after having begun a new teaching job, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my head in my hands. Otis picked up a cat toy ball and threw it at me, beaning me on the head! I was so surprised that it immediately brought me out of my funk and I began laughing, and so did he.
‘Otis could also talk, but rarely chose to do so, because I think I learned to read his Parrot body language so well’.
In other examples, Quito, the Blue-headed Pionus, one morning in September 2008, appeared from his body language to be readying himself to fly to my shoulder. I felt apprehensive, as sometimes when he is first out of his cage Quito is over-excited and a little bitey. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s okay’, then flew to my shoulder and was very sweet.
Casper 8 months old tries to awake Solomon – a wild caught who has died of Aspergillosis
On another occasion, I was away at a conference for three days, and when I returned, Quito asked, ‘Where did you go?’ This is not so much empathy, but certainly an example of contextual cognitive language use.
A Parrot-keeping acquaintance also told me that their Quaker Parrot, Tuck, often calls out, ‘Am I okay?’ when he is anxious or wants to know where everyone is. However, when one of the family is not feeling well, he changes the call to, ‘Are you okay?’ Apparently, he keeps this up until he is assured that everyone is indeed okay.
My friend has no idea how he learned this, especially since he uses correct grammatical construction, but this exchange may well indicate empathy on Tuck’s part.
American Professor of Evolution and Ecology Catherine Toft makes some pertinent observations on anthropomorphism in discussing Parrot and human traits.
She writes: ‘We are therefore not being anthropomorphic when we recognise that Parrots share certain traits with humans. Although a few of these traits, such as basic brain structure, follow from our common vertebrate heritage, most have arisen by convergent evolution.
‘What’s your is mine,’ Artha in the nut jar
Natural selection has moulded Parrots and people in response to the environments in which our ancestors lived. We share large brains and dependence on learning because we are social animals, adapted to solving problems in groups of individuals rather than striking out on our own.
Parrots and humans (and other primates and cetaceans, corvids and elephants) are social and intelligent because the resources on which they depend are locally abundant but scarce and unpredictable on larger spacial and temporal scale.
Parrots also share our inventive use of vocalisations’.
I’d add to that, Parrots learn to use our language but few, if any of us, can speak theirs. Parrots are like people as much as people are like Parrots.
Finally, here is what the late Dr Stewart Metz, who devoted a large part of his life to Cockatoo conservation in Indonesia wrote:
‘The only thing I (partly) disagree with is this ‘anthropomorphism’ thing as anathema. We don’t know what human children are thinking, but ascribe to them emotions based on behaviour only.
I don’t object to it being applied to Parrots with inferred emotional state and, I believe…this can be done, and then recognition of that behaviour—and labelling it, say ‘happy’ or ‘upset’—lets one interpret better other behaviours.
Seeing young Parrots play in the wild, screeching and darting about, is obviously (in my opinion) pleasure, joy or happiness of a sort. Why be so scared to label it such? We are not the only species with emotions, and emotions induce observable behaviours. Okay, it’s unscientific (and I’m a scientist!) but useful (IMO) nonetheless’.
Toft, C & Wright, T 2015, Parrots of the wild: A natural history of the world’s most captivating birds, University of California Press.
Burger, J 2002, The Parrot who owns me, Random House.
Emery, Dr N 2016, Bird Brain, Ivy Press.
Safina, C 2015, Beyond words: what animals think and feel, Picador, USA.
Anderson, PK 2016, bond https://iaabc.org/parrot/anthropomorphism-and-the-human-parrot bond.