Birds and Brains

You probably remember Alex, the Congo African Grey parrot that Doctor Irene Pepperberg worked with and had some amazing discoveries with. I strongly recommend the book, Alex and Me by Dr. Pepperberg.

When I opened my home to two special needs CAGs, I didn’t expect them to be geniuses. So it totally takes me by surprise when Bo Dangles, the toeless female, displays her amazing brain power. She arrived at our house with an impressive collection of words, and soon demonstrated she knew the meaning of many of them. Water, she would inquire when she heard the sink running. Apple? If she wanted that or Corn? This morphed into Corney for some reason.

Bo also knew to say “I’m sorry!” whenever she would bite or try to bite someone. When another bird flys past her cage, she asks, “You okay?” She also added to her words and her sounds on nearly a daily basis. She never stops learning. We don’t really know how old she is, but I believe she is less than 10 years old.

Maynard, on the other hand, is at least 25 years old. He’s a double yellow headed Amazon parrot, and talks even more than Bo. He says “Good Morning!” whenever he first sees you. He calls, “Come on!” when you walk away and he wants you to come back. He says, “Hello cracker?” when he wants what you are eating.

I read once that the biggest difference between Amazons and African Greys, as far as learning ability, is that greys will learn new things for the whole of their lives, where as Amazons rarely learn new things after a certain age.

Yet Maynard is learning. He stood off in the hallway tonight, by himself, saying, “Maaaay-neeeerrrrd.” He sounded like Mike trying to get the parrot to stop shouting. But he sounded like Maynard sounding like Mike, if that makes any sense. Bo sounds so much like me when she says “Honey!” that if I’m not in the room at the time, Mike thinks I am calling him. Hilarity sometimes ensues.

This Live Science article includes some facts about Alex and the fact that greys have the reasoning capabilities of 4 year old humans. Some people object to this comparison, because parrots are parrots, and will get no smarter as they grow. It’s dangerous to be too blasé about such statements.

Animal News Network shares more recent research from Dr. Pepperberg, and the findings that parrots don’t seem to care much for computer images or television images or even sounds from any devices. They prefer their people or other birds live and immediate.

Due to Bo’s physical limitations, she’s only been exposed to the computer, and does not seem greatly excited by anything she has seen there. Maynard, however, will sit on the back of my chair while I watch a movie, and really gets excited when the characters shout or are angry and fighting. He laughs when they or we laugh, and he shouts when the music is dramatic. Occasionally he will perch quietly on the chair and focus on the tv screen. published this article in 2009 detailing research that shows a parrot that uses one foot or the other predominantly to grasp items has a higher intelligence than one that does not. This doesn’t help me at all in determining the intelligence of a parrot with no toes, although she does seem to use her left leg more for holding on to the cage bars when she climbs around.

Wikipedia covers a lot of information on parrots in general, but under the heading “Behavior, Intelligence and Learning” we get to what I most wanted to discover. That parrot chicks need mental stimulation early on and continuously for there to be an intelligent brain to work with. Also interesting in the fact parrots use a different part of the brain for these functions than humans do.

I can’t find any reference to the study on age playing an important part in what a parrot can learn, other than that stimulation early on is needed. But I do hope I might stumble across it again some day. Another possibility is that more research has been done in that area, and disproves those earlier findings. Instead, I am leaving you with this wonderful article in Scientific American, an interview with Dr. Pepperberg about Alex. Her stories about him often highlight his sense of humor.

Have a great day, see you on Wednesday!


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