Hypotheses and Experiments in Parrot Communication
by CB Buckley
In Part 1, I covered different kinds of gesturing and other non-verbal communication by parrots. I also documented specific instances of how parrots use deceit, which is considered to be one of the scientific measures of intelligence. Some of the advanced examples of parrot communication included parrots sharing information with one-another and made-up games using vocalizations.
We still have trouble interpreting parrot behavior because not only are birds complex creatures, but they relate to things differently than we humans do. Even so, there is a lot about the way any brain is organized to give us some hints. We look for similarities where we can recognize the impetus for the actions we observe.
The focus of this Part 2 article is to correlate what we observe in our parrots with how their brains might be processing information. In other words…why is my parrot doing that?
Pattern recognition and pattern matching is a central part of parrot cognition. Parrots’ detailed pattern recognition ability allows them to stay safe by recognizing when there’s been any change in their environment. One small change may mean the presence of predators, and puts them on high alert. This instinct is what causes the fear of change that we experience in our homes.
One can see parrot vocalizations that are triggered by environmental events appear to be tied to pattern recognition. Many people have posted videos and described how their parrots will say, “Hello,” or recite conversations whenever the phone rings. When we pick up keys, our African grey (Psittacus erithacus) has learned the door is about to open, so she now makes a door sound every time keys jingle.
I’ve observed that once parrots have learned a pattern, they actually compete with each other to be the first to sound-off when an event occurs. Like kids (“Me-me-me! I saw it first!”), the “clever” one who first recognizes one of those patterns will scream in excitement. Conure parrots are surely quick to notice (and loudly announce) “suspicious” activity. They have been described as the “security alarm” of the jungle.
It is commonly accepted that other animals, such as feline cubs, will play pouncing and wrestling games as a precursor to becoming accomplished hunters. Similarly, the bird vocalization “competitions” would help parrots hone their skills for keeping an eye on their environment, for recognizing signs that certain events are about to happen, and for their reaction time in spotting and warning the flock of the impending danger.
Recent findings by Comins and Gentner, indicate that the mechanism for pattern recognition is also what allows for human speech development. Therefore, it’s not surprising the two would go together in parrots.
THEORY THAT “PARROTING” IS A THOUGHT PROCESS
I’m sure you’ve seen how parrots often resemble hyperactive kids. While Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a problem in modern human society, scientists have postulated how it would have been an advantage for early man…and very likely an advantage for parrots in the wild. In other words, ADHD would be a good survival trait.
There has already been a precedent set where researchers have found a correlation between parrot Feather-picking Disorder and human Trichotillomania (obsessive hair-pulling). And, there may be other similar traits that are normally part of the parrot psyche.
Similarly, I have seen an intriguing parallel between parrot mimicking and a Tourette-like tic. One of the symptoms of Tourette syndrome is involuntary verbal outbursts—usually triggered by a strong emotion when thinking about specific things. That corresponds to an already well-established relationship, in which it is common knowledge how parrots tend to prefer to mimic sounds they associate with high emotion.
With African greys in particular, it seems they “say” what they are thinking. When we enter the kitchen, our grey (Bobo) will be getting excited about meal time and make the sound associated with food preparation—the microwave beep. She thinks about it and the sound comes out. When eager for a snack, she may also spontaneously run through some phrases parroting-style that she associates with having acquired treats or food in the past. Furthermore, I have overheard her quietly making the microwave sound to herself when it gets close to dinnertime.
- There are additional incidents not related to food where we’ve seen the same kind of vocalizations.
- The grey will say out loud, “Bobo walk,” as she plods across the floor.
- The grey will say, “No bite,” as she is reaching for a forbidden object.
- The conures cannot help but “announce” their nefarious activity if they fly over to an area designated as “off.”
Observing African greys is most helpful due to their being able to articulate speech and sounds well enough that we can attempt to follow their trains of thought. Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s subject, Alex the Grey, would interrupt his work sessions with unrelated comments and phrases. However, his “off-topic” antics were not random—they had to do with his mind wandering to other activities that he was thinking about: “Wanna go back,” “Wanna nut,” “Wanna go eat dinner.”
IMAGINING A DIFFERENT ACTIVITY
There is another kind of “parroting” activity many people have witnessed. Parrots will recite out loud a bunch of their known (and sometimes new) speech and sounds—often adjacent to their sleep time. Being prey, parrots may not be able to afford the luxury of a full, deep REM sleep (REM allows the mammalian brain to organize and store experiences). So, I am proposing a hypothesis that parrots may do the REM equivalent in a wakeful state, manifesting those vocalizations. Whether my particular hypotheses are correct or not, we need to allow for the possibility that what appears to be random parroting really has purpose in the mind of the parrot.
DANCING, SYMBOLS, AND COUNTING
Parrots not only sing, but they dance—which is considered rare among animals. Could an awareness of beats help with counting and numbers? It’s very curious the way my Nanday conure (who likes to dance to music) keeps a beat and expresses numbers. She has an obsession with number series and patterns. She loves to play a “number game” with me.
When the Nanday was a baby, she used to start with a solitary squeak and then wait until I replied with a similar squeak (best as I could). She would then increment to two squeaks and wait for my two-squeak reply. This would continue in perfect sequence up to around seven.
I was fascinated to learn that a similar numerical progression was documented in a paper about the caws of wild crows. At the time I first noticed it with my Nanday, I was not familiar with Miller’s Law, which theorizes a cut-off of seven for the human brain.
Yet, as she got older, the Nanday would do many more squeaks than seven. She arrived at her select number of squeaks by incorporating a beat sequence. It’s not quite counting…it’s specific patterns of multiple squeaks/squawks, like a drum-beat pattern.
This is a lot more difficult to capture on video without interrupting her. I did record an example of how she leads this game and the sound patterns. In that video, she was using clicks rather than notes/chirps. You can view the reference video here. “Parrot Uses Beat Pattern to Count—FlyChomperFly Research Series: DANCE SYMBOLS COUNTING Game”
An owner of a Timneh Grey reported that her parrot also plays a complex-tone game with her. In that case, it’s not a counting game, but a “match this sound” game—where if the human doesn’t get the sound right, the grey will precisely repeat it for her. So, it’s clearly not just random squawks—it’s an intentional, interactive game.
I wonder if these games could give insight into how parrots organize numbers? Determining how birds go about organizing numbers (sans language) has been researched by several scientists without conclusive results.
BRAIN PROCESSING OF VOCALIZATIONS
There is a notable pattern to parrot brain information processing that I’ve observed. While parrots can whistle or sing songs, they universally tend to do so in segments. A human child capable of singing a whole song, will do the same thing. But a parrot will pause longer between stanzas, and may even abandon the song completely.
We could assume that parrots have less memory capacity for storing longer strings of information. Alternatively, there could be some restrictions in the way their brain retrieves the information—possibly shorter “packets” of data—to give them quicker response times (a survival benefit). Given how the ability to hold more information at a time has been linked to higher general intelligence in human brains, I am thinking it could be one of the factors limiting parrots’ cognitive skills.
My other hypothesis is that a parrot’s lack of continuity could also be due to their brain “interrupts” (similar to how interrupts work in a computer). Because parrots are prey, they need to be constantly on the alert for predators. They cannot afford to take their minds off of their environment for more than a short interval, or it could be fatal. They probably have to constantly interrupt their thought processes in order to check the area for danger—before returning back to their original task (if ever).
I have experimented and found that my Jenday conure cannot keep her eyes focused on any activity for longer than about six seconds. No matter how engrossed she is with the object or activity, her eyes will automatically avert to check the environment about every six seconds. We humans have the luxury of being able to focus without having to watch our backside every few seconds.
Scientists now have evidence that some of our human attention-deficit tendencies are a throwback to when early humans were living in more dangerous situations. A parrot’s lack of long-term focus doesn’t mean the bird is less intelligent. However, it becomes a disadvantage when trying to concentrate on something long enough to puzzle out an intricate problem. Having removed constant threats could be a reason we are able to see some incredible aptitudes with our domestically bred parrots.
EVIDENCE OF LANGUAGE SYNTAX BY PARROTS
Scientists have had limited success in proving language syntax usage by non-humans. Arguably, the most successful are probably dolphins. In spite of Alex the Grey not being trained in language syntax, Pepperberg documented how he continued to insert new nouns into a syntactically proper sentence in order to express his “wants.” In a 2013 study, Kaufman, Colbert-White and Burgess were able to statistically confirm that an African grey was parsing out individual words from learned phrases and incorporating them into novel yet appropriate context (“contextual substitutability”), maintaining correct syntax.
When our grey, Bobo, was a baby, we had talked to her in fairly short phrases such as, “Gimme a kiss,” “Let’s go for a walk,” and “Good girl, Bobo.” Yet, she did not memorize the exact phrases as just symbols or units. She understood they were made up of individual words—apparently recognized which were the actionable words—as she ended up stripping out the unneeded words similar to a two-year-old. “Good girl, Bobo” became “Bobo Good.” Yet, it’s not just rearranging words, because she never says, “Girl good,” or “Girl Bobo,” or any other odd combination.
That same grey has also demonstrated that she understood the verb “go” was a separate word, and ostensibly where it belonged in the sentence.
She says to us, “Bobo go walk” or “Bobo walk.”
(She uses this as a statement while she walks on the floor or as a request when she wants to go somewhere.)
The most overt is that she decided a proper sentence would be, “Bobo go kiss.” (She then kisses us.)
We would never use “go” in that way—she assuredly would never have heard us speak that phrase. And, she doesn’t randomly add “go” or any other words to sentences. Plus, she has never shuffled the other words (i.e. she never said “Go walk Bobo,” or “Kiss Bobo go,” or any other weird verb placement). She decided hers were the right phrases.
The key is that while “Bobo go kiss” isn’t a proper English sentence structure, it does make perfect sense based on what the bird knew of the syntax of other English sentences where “go” is used. Again, this is common with talking parrots.
Virginia Bush, who has an Avian Cognition forum, has similarly noted how her African grey’s use of language includes creative adjustments based on his interpretation of the meaning or syntax:
One summer day a couple years ago, I had one problem after another…I ended up saying “Oh good grief!” time after time after time, as I dealt with these ongoing difficulties. Well, Chaucer was watching and listening to all this, and a couple days later I heard him say “Oh… grief!” — in exactly my tone of voice, except he left out “good.” He said this a good many times, always leaving out “good.” And then I heard him say, many times, first “Oh bad grief!” — and then “Oh awful grief!” Chaucer corrected my nonsensical expression of exasperation and disgust so that it made sense. Chaucer now uses “Oh awful grief” himself in annoying situations.
Virginia Bush is also an English-as-Second-Language (ESL) instructor. She confirms that parrots make errors that would seem logical for someone unfamiliar with English—especially the odd anomalies in conjugation:
…while apparently talking about flying on our screened-in porch the day before. He very distinctly said ‘flied’ instead of ‘flew’,” “You flied on the porch”–referring to himself… (he doesn’t understand pronouns)
While not clinically tested, those examples should provide adequate evidence that some parrots possess the capability to comprehend and apply language syntax on some level.
WORD USE AND NICKNAMES
Lots of animals respond to nicknames. The only thing unique about parrots is that by having speech, they can give themselves nicknames. And they do!
It is common for parrots to use truncated versions of their own names, portmanteaus of their names with other words, or even to use completely different words as nicknames for themselves. My own grey has, at times, shortened her name from “Bobo” (two syllables) to “Bobe/Bub” or “Bo” (one syllable).
I am presenting proof that Congo African grey parrots (probably other parrots too) are sensitive to something as subtle as voice inflection. It’s very possible other species are too, but we have specific evidence of it with an adult female grey parrot. It is very rare for this parrot to speak out of context, but when she is nervous or particularly excited, she will blurt out phrases. It’s similar to the way dogs get excited over an anticipated activity; it mostly happens when she is excited to get a food treat.
Normally, we will ask a question such as, “Are you a good girl?” She will then answer in-context with, “Yes,” or with something like, “Bobo good girl.” But, when she gets into that excited state, she will answer “yes” to any question we ask her—even a question we’re sure she doesn’t understand because it’s composed of words she’s never heard before. Note that when asked a question under those circumstances, she doesn’t answer, “Good” or “I love you” or “bye-bye”—just, “Yes.” You can see an example of this at the reference video here. “Talking Parrot Experiment—FlyChomperFly Research Series: VOICE INFLECTION Understood!”
There are also crucial observations, which may not happen in a clinical setting, but will contribute new perspectives and awareness. There are situations where a behavior has never been witnessed and is unknown, or when the evidence of one lone behavior can contradict, validate, or enhance current wisdom. Those are when just a video can be as valuable as a research study. It’s why I’ve worked so hard to document my observations on video.
As you can see, observations such as these are vital for understanding our companion birds. Observe and document your birds—it’s more than just for memories.
CB Buckley is committed to improving parrot-human companionship. She encourages out-of-cage activity and in-home flight. She has been documenting parrot behavior for the research community while dispelling common misinformation. Her focus is to use the intelligence of the bird in all interactions. She documents her approach on her YouTube channel FlyChomperFly.