N’KISI AND OTHER FAKES.

I’ve been asked to comment on the talking-parrot stories that have been bruited about Blogovia of late, and I’ve been putting it off because even I get tired of being a party-pooper all the time. Fortunately, Geoff Pullum has done it for me over at Language Log; I’ll quote the heart of it and send you off to read the whole thing (if you’re up for some pull-no-punches debunking):

I’m just appalled at the kind of ridiculous, credulous garbage that sails out into the media universe the moment anyone claims they have located a communicative animal. People seem to completely lose their critical faculties when a bird with a brain the size of a macadamia nut creaks out a few imitated syllables, or (we’ve seen this before, with Koko) a gorilla waves its hairy hand vaguely in the air in a way that its trainer thinks resembles the very sign she was expecting. What is going on? Are we so desperate for communication with other intelligences that we will throw away our own the moment some dumb creature gives us an imitative squawk or a hand sign?

A horse is a horse…
Nota bene. I am very much enjoying the vigorous discussion in the comment thread. I do feel I should emphasize one thing: this post is not about animal communication or intelligence in general; Languagehat is agnostic about such matters. It is purely about the alleged ability of certain animals to learn and use the grammar of human languages. I realize that some species have their own complex systems of conveying meaning. I do not believe they can conjugate verbs.


Addendum. I have received the following e-mail:

I came across some comments on one of your archives (29 Jan 2004) that interested me. The discussion of the day was the N’kisi Project. Some of your discussion participants were bird owners; some were skeptics about a bird’s ability to use language.
My bird is shy and usually talks to me or when she is outside on her perch. I record her there. My macaw has an overwhelming variety of things she can say (words, phrases, sentences, and short topical discussions). I’m interested in communicating off line with those who may be interested in the abilities of a talking bird. I am working on an analysis of my bird’s speech from a linguistic point of view. The only news story about my bird, Arielle, was carried a couple of years ago in the local paper.
The speech streams and the circumstances about her speech seem to reveal my macaw’s thought patterns. Can you help me find people who might be inclined to help me? I am an independent (i.e., unpaid) researcher/writer-want-to-be.
Will you kindly request that people interested in carry forward with speech related topic about birds (including hard-to-understand speech) contact me at my e-mail address [mdaltonarielle@yahoo.com]. We need to get acquainted.
Thanks for your help.
Sincerely,
Michael Dalton

So drop him a line if you have something to contribute.

Comments

  1. I actually found Pullman to be arrogant in his assumption that only humans can understand ‘language’. That’s the same as saying that dogs can’t see colors because they can’t see the range of colors we do. Since he doesn’t have comments, you’re the lucky winner of mine. Aren’t you lucky, LH?
    I won’t debate the parrot, but I do disagree with lumping this story in with the long time and serious studies with chimps and apes and the use of sign language.
    True, I don’t have a PhD in linguistics, and normally I would defer to the more educated and experienced person in regards their field of study. But not this time, because though I don’t have a PhD, I did study linguistics when I went for my psychology degree. Who was my teacher? Dr. Roger Fouts.

  2. Michael Farris says:

    Since language log doesn’t have comments, I’ll comment here warning: rambling ahead
    While there’s a lot of colorful invective, I didn’t find that much of substance in the post. And he does the thing I hate most in discussions of animal communication. He sets the goal of research into an all or nothing question. Animal communication is 100% like human communication or it doesn’t exist. It’s much more interesting to look at what animals do on its own terms.
    Research into animal communication generally all comes down to the same question. Is human communication different from animal communication in kind or in amount (qualitatively or quantitatively).
    Note that both sides recognize there is a pretty big difference between human and animal communication.
    My own tenative opinion is for quantitative.
    As for apes signing. Ape manual anatomy is different enough from human manual anatomy that the basic signs have to be modified for apes to use them. If the researchers don’t build those modifications into the input, the apes will do so in output. I’d be surprised if a linguistically naive native user of ASL could make much of ape signing.
    There’s also a question of muscular control, the prettiest, most fluid signing I saw from an ape was an orangutan, an arboreal species with presumably finer-grained manual control than lowland chimps.
    Finally, (possibly OT and possibly undermining my opinions somewhat) a number of years ago, I read an anecdotal book about languageless adults in California (illegal deaf immigrants who’d never been exposed to a natural sign language enough to learn one). I forget the title.
    Anyway, it seems that many of them, with the appropriate care and education do learn ASL to some extent, but one teacher observed it was _very_ difficult to get them to ask questions.

  3. Hmm. Have to disagree with you, Mr Hat, or rather your chosen representative.
    Yes, the story about N’kisi was out of date and tabloidised. The debate around N’kisi suffers from the parrot’s association with Rupert Sheldrake and the claims of psychic ability.
    However, and confining myself only to parrots, I think the research of Dr Irene Pepperberg and her team into the cognitive and communicative abilities of African grey parrots deserves attention.
    In the sample you quote Mr Pullman uses the term “communicative animal”. Anyone who’s owned a dog, for instance, will know the communicative ability of animals all too well. This, however, is not “language”. There is, of course, a difference.
    Taking issue with the Dr Doolittle-esque tone of the original article is one thing, denying the communicative and cognitive abilities of parrots is another.

  4. Aren’t you lucky, LH?
    Yes! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you, Shelley. I knew I’d get lots of pushback on this one, but relied on my highly civilized commenters to keep it civil (or, failing that, funny), and I thank all of you for bearing me out. Of course I understand that we can’t expect animals to banter with Wodehousean wit or do commentary on Dostoevsky, and of course animals are “communicative” in a broad sense — I’ve lived with dogs and cats. But I agree with Geoff that there’s been far too much readiness to push it much farther than the evidence will go (rather like life on other planets), and I think he and I both were fed up with the credulous news stories and general overexcitement and felt a vigorous corrective was needed. No offense to anyone who loves animals and thinks they can be intelligent in their own way; so do I. But the language stuff is almost impossible to deal with without overplaying it.

  5. I tend to agree with Geoff, too. I’m not that convinced that an ape pointing at himself to say me or at the trainer to say you is really learning ASL. Other signs, yes, quite likely. But they do not speak in the same way humans do, and they do not use the baby ASL they learn the way humans do. Even apes trained from birth don’t go around giving opinions and asking questions.
    I’ve no doubt that animals communicate, and if we (a) knew more about how they did so (instead of teaching them ASL or English) and (b) had a working definition of what it meant to communicate in a language, it could be profitably discussed whether or not they speak a language. But they don’t do it in the way humans do.

  6. When my son was in seventh grade he figured out that almost every poem in the English language could be sung to the tune either of “Mr. Ed” or “Gilligan’s Island”.
    And what does he do now? He’s a lyricist and song-writer for a nice jazzy kind of band. (I don’t know what the lesson is here.)
    I’ll weigh in on the relatively pro-parrot side on this one.

  7. When I first saw the BBC article, I though they were talking about a ganzfeld experiment. Now that would’ve been interesting :)

  8. I’d have to disagree that ape sign language is qualitatively any different than human language use. The single most disturbing piece of film I have seen in the last few years was a film on “Animal Channel” about Koko the signing gorilla. A younger signing gorilla was chosen for her mate. This gorilla had been born wild and was taken captive and rescued by the folks at Yerkes Ape Center. At one point the gorilla was asked if it remembered it’s life in the wild. The gorilla answered in sign language, and launched into a five minute, rather detailed description of fleeing with his mother, seeing his mother shot by hunters, crying and being scared, and being captured and tied up, and taken away.
    My girlfriend, who is Japanese, had the Japanese attitude that animals are animals and humans are humans. You can eat whales and dolphins and even primates because they taste good and “do not think.” Ever since she saw that bit of film she changed her attitude – obsessively and radically, as do the Japanese at times – and now she tries to watch every ape-centric nature show on TV and she actually drags me to the Zoo to look at the monkeys and spends a half hour trying to get the gorilla’s attention.

  9. I guess the most interesting thing about the question to me is how much of a foofarah it stirs up. (Hat, would you research “foofarah” for me and tell me how best to spell it?)
    Obviously one of those questions that’s hard to answer because it’s been launched with a full load of assumptions, and freighted with vast implications.
    Generally if you really want to get anywhere with those kinds of questions (not that people usually do) the first order of business is to unload all those assumptions and implications, spread them out on the beach, name them, catalog them, and then quick hop back on the boat before they all scuttle back on board.

  10. I suppose what’s at issue here is not linguistic ability (parrots and people have that, apes don’t) but rather consciousness.
    It seems to me that consciousness is present in nature on a continuum, with the biggest deposits being found in humans, and progressively less as one goes down the evolutionary chain. This large deposit of consciousness might seem to be connected to our ability to speak, but that cannot be proven since there aren’t any animals that can “almost speak”, and there isn’t a trend towards “almost speaking” as one ascends the evolutionary tree.
    Instead, one has grunting apes and speaking birds, which suggests not that parrots are an anomaly, but that the ability to speak is, itself, an anomaly. A lucky one, in the case of humans, since we were able to link it to our outsize consciousness and create poetry and oratory.
    It would be an existential crisis for humans, I think, if apes (or, for that matter, cows) had the consciousness they have now, linked with the speaking ability of parrots. The parrot doesn’t know what its saying, but the cow would (to a greater extent, at least), and this would raise some questions for our, um, dining habits.

  11. Hat, would you research “foofarah” for me and tell me how best to spell it?
    Well, Merriam-Webster’s says foofaraw, which I think is how I spell it (I say it more often than I write it), but spell it how you like as long as you use that wonderful word!
    the ability to speak is, itself, an anomaly. A lucky one, in the case of humans
    Amen!

  12. dungbeattle says:

    luv the above : “…The parrot doesn’t know what its saying, but the cow would (to a greater extent, at least), and this would raise some questions for our, um, dining habits. by
    commonbeauty …” and one believes a human is different: too many are like CB’s parrot and others are like the bovine -regurgitate what they hear on the channel blah.['tis only moi opining]

  13. cb — if you ask yourself, “what is consciousness”, you will find that many of the answers you come up with will be reducible to “possession of language” — which might suggest that consciousness is not precursor to language but rather a product of language — or a quality which is developed hand-in-hand with language. By teaching a gorilla sign language (if such a thing can be done — I am entirely agnostic on this question) might a human teacher endow his subject with consciousness?

  14. With all due respect, Jeremy Osner, that sounds quite wrong to me.
    But I’m the touchy-feely vaguely-mystical sort, so a ny cheap scientist could probably brow-beat me fairly easily on this issue.
    I happen to think that some human beings possess an extremely heightened state of consciousness, just a very simple animals and even plants have “something” that makes them different from robots and stones.
    The tricky question is whether consciousness is “knowing” or whether it is “knowing that you know” or “knowing that you know that you know”. I would actually argue for the simplest of those, and suggest that plants do “know”, even if it is on a very basic level, have a lower consciousness, and that the human (primate? mammal?) capacity for meta-knowledge is what I mean by our higher consciousness, which is obviously coincident with language but not obviously causally related to it. In parrots and apes, higher consciousness and speech are not coincident, in the former case because of brain size, in the latter (for all I know) because of physiological limitations (i.e. the wrong tongue, voice box and brain specialization).
    This is why, without argument, many people would agree that the more complex an animal is, the more respect with which it deserves to be treated.

  15. I’ve always felt that Hockett’s “design features” of language and other animal communication systems is the best way of approaching the issue. Rather than trying to reduce the issue to just one feature, it portrays a whole range of features which make up human communication, and allows us to credit animals with some of those features without attributing to them what they don’t have. Of course, many scholars want to privilege those features which we don’t share with animals, but that seems a little anthropocentric to me..

  16. I would take a bit of exception to that last statement, myself — “the more complex an animal is” seems to me like a reductive way of categorizing reality. Is a primate more complex than a dog? a dolphin than a frog? a cockroach than a log? I don’t really like looking at the world through this heirarchical lens. “The more respect with which it deserves to be treated” is anthropic — where does this dessert come from and to whom does it apply? Is the cat treating the mouse with respect? (I would think yes, such a definition of “respect” must exist.) What about the logger vis-a-vis the redwood? What about the banker vis-a-vis the defaulting borrower? I am pretty much in your camp on the question of the continuity of properties across the spectrum of existence — but I think defining this spectrum as one ranging from simple to complex is way simplistic.

  17. You’re right in saying that a spectrum needn’t be linear. In comments boxes, the demands of clarity and brevity can often trump the need for subtlety and complexity. Point conceded, Mr Osner. Thank you.

  18. You’re welcome, commonbeauty, and thanks for the impetus — and sorry if it sounded like an attack — rereading it now I think hmmm, that sounds a little overly strident…

  19. cb the parrot doesn’t know what it is saying – but it does, to some extent. Or at least demonstrably so in the case of Alex.
    One of the interesting features of the parrot research is the discontinuity it seems to reveal in the accepted continuum of animal cognitive ability, which basically had primates at the top of a pyramid of mammals. The abilities of parrots (with, as Mr Pullman so memorably points out, a brain the size of a macademia nut) challenge that heirarchy with, of course, homo sapiens at the apex.
    I’m glad you mentioned dining habits – it’s something I’m, eh, ruminating on.

  20. Trumping all kinds of need, and risking stridency at each keystroke, standing solidly amongst the furred and clawed, and picking up the tangent of telepathy into the bargain, let me ask…
    Have any of you guys who are so dismissive of Koko and her family actually READ any documentation on what they’ve done?
    And Sheldrake, ever seen his research work outside the rigged arena of skeptic media?
    Every scientific control possible and a woman’s dog goes through the precise awareness-figuration of her imminent return, completely random timing, no possible clue, hidden camera no human presence, and the dog seems to obviously know she’s coming home – when she herself begins the process of return.
    -
    Is there bias here, besides healthy rational skepticism and insistence on proof before credulity?
    Well yeah, two main biases.
    One, the granting of consciousness to animals moves our treatment of them from the at times unnecessarily cruel, toward the capital criminal. Can’t have that.
    The distinction between us and “them” is necessary because the relationship is already confirmed and acted on. Like blacks being pretty obviously inferior therefore slavery’s ok, after they’re already enslaved. Acknowledging their humanity would mean we’re…we’ve…Oh God.
    Two, the desperate struggle to maintain the inviolable privacy of the conscious self. That may seem all cockamamie, but I insist it’s at least a probable motive. A huge amount of our lives, the conscious walk-around part, is internal, and most of us absolutely do not like the prospect of that internal world being seen by anyone else. Which the concept of telepathy most definitely threatens to make possible.
    -
    N’Kisi I dunno.
    I lived with a parrotlet for some years, a member of a flocking subspecies; and there was in him an obvious complexity of intent driven through a paucity of shared symbols, such that I was ashamed, being the responsible “free” member of the clad, that beyond recognizing basic need-expressions, and cheerfulness and anger, (and fear, we lived deeply rural and there were hawks close by at times) I had no symbol-set to offer him to bridge the interspecies gap.
    But I’ll tell you what, there was a potential there I’d get a glimpse of once in a while, what it must have been like in the wild for them, among themselves, an order of contact and communication beyond our cybernetic dreams.
    Don’t we have micro-processors now that are really really tiny? That we built in our recently developed workshops. Birds have been birds for 180 million years. Isn’t it just a little shallow to talk about something with a brain “the size of a macadamia nut” being incapable of complex thought?
    Too much contact with new-age drones up in Santa Cruz for Mr. Pullum, maybe.
    Sheldrake’s position is compromised by the same taint. But think of what else he takes on by being the public focus of that side of the argument.
    -
    The tangential question is the possibility of telepathic contact. Which itself rests on the possibility of a mechanism to convey mental “energy”, thought patterns, etc; or, in the case of empathic telepathy, emotional states.
    At a moment in human progress when relatively average people can send images of themselves around the world instantaneously, when men on earth can direct the movement of a machine on Mars, the almost vicious rejection of telepathy as a possibility seems odd.
    Skepticism of magical thinking is healthy, skepticism of everything up to a point is healthy, I’m from Missouri, too.
    But the scorn, that’s more interesting. It’s been my consistent experience that scorn, of ideas, of people, and of animals, has its origins in fear.
    -
    And yes, when it comes to primate research I’m a zealot. And yes, to simplify the point, granting consciousness to primates means that what’s been done to them in the laboratories of modern research is not just grotesque and unpleasant but is a moral crime of horrifying dimension. Thus the absurd debate about whether or not they can think.

  21. Michael Farris says:

    Well as Suzette Haden Elgin wrote; it certainly would be inconvenient if it turned out our pets have telepathic capabilities that we don’t.
    Having spent a good chunk of my life around animals of various species, I’m not betting a red cent against the idea that they have something like telepathy …

  22. Two posts mention Irene Pepperberg and her grey parrot Alec — do go read her wonderful discussion at edge.com all the way to the end.
    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pepperberg03/pepperberg_index.html

  23. Very sorry, Alex not Alec

  24. “Is the baby smiling, or is it just gas?” — T. Pynchon

  25. dungbeattle says:

    Communication? does not just consist of sound 100c/s to 15Kc/s [20kc/s+ in some cases][linguistic segment made up of nice sound bites and groupings of letters to indicate what is on ones mind]for the output or input or light waves in red to blues frequencies to see or hear or speak. There is a large untapped area that we are getting to grips with by making devices to trans form to edible human consumption, that make are use of the missing link. So why are we the only ones that think that we are the only ones that have the genetic code to use such limited ranges and not the rest of Genetic material bodies do not have the untapped ranges naturally.
    When Man first thought of flight like a bird was possible, he was ridiculed for 5000 years , Wax wings, Oh! how stupid. Now we have variations of man wing flight [ hang gliding and micro light - not quite perfect yet but ]
    I believe that what ever man thinks of will come to past at some time. So do animals communicate? Oh! Yes! watch ‘canis’ packs for example, and other animals like Carrion {press] know when there is a good meal[headline] going on the plains [or Washington].
    But we are upset because they [the animals] do not include us in their communication.
    re: my comment above: the majority of homo sapiens do not use but a fraction of their gifts to communicate with rest of the mob.
    Another thought. Why does managment spend billions to get two leaders to-gether in a neutral room . You need other communicative skills besides body language, to truly communicate [tele/ vision /phone does not hack it it is only good for the rehash] .
    It may not best liguisticaly/grammatically etc. but it just a thought of an iq 89

  26. Dungbeatle-
    The IQ numbers are interesting and they can be fun tests sometimes but at the end of the day it’s what’s behind the words as much as anything.
    We’re all using less than our full ability.
    Have to push, and keep on pushing.
    -
    I had a dream one time a guy on a skateboard went off a cliff and he had a hang glider with him and he went flying down over the ocean and his skateboard became a wind-sail board in the water as he landed on the water and he sailed all around like that.
    -
    People think they’re the only ones that think because it scares them to think they’re not the only ones. Even though not being the only ones means we’re not alone.
    Like a lot of good things seem scary at first. Like writing a comment knowing a bunch of people are going to read it and what will they think about what you wrote? Oh boy.
    Gotta do it though.
    Keep thinking, keep writing.

  27. I haven’t studied it in any detail, but I remember that Descartes claimed that the whole physical creation, including animals, was purely physical and ruled by deterministic physical laws, whereas man alone had a dual nature and a soul. As I understand, this was just a messy attempt at a compromise between Christian theology and emerging (determinist-materialist) physical science. In particular, I don’t believe that Descartes conducted any investigation of the question of whether animals have consciousness (souls) or not. And in fact, Descartes’ paradigm argument (“I think, therefore I am”) tended toward solipsism barely made it possible to be sure that other humans think, much less animals. (And meanwhile other thinkers were declaring that man is a machine without a soul too).
    Descartes’ conclusions, which had been trimmed to fit Catholic doctrine, in effect thereby assumed Christian doctrines on the question without examining them.
    The point being that the idea that animals don’t have consciousness or souls became widespread and essentially orthodox with the question of whether they do or not ever having been asked. I’d conjecture that when linguists or psychologists pooh-pooh these kinds of studies, they’re most likely just reiterating similiar foundational assumptions of their own particular science, which are likewise not based on any investigation but rather on some convenient initial definitions.

  28. On bird intelligence, the citation and URL below talk about bowerbird courtship behavior. As I remember the author says that individual males have their own original artistic and architectural styles of building their very complex bowers, and that these birds have developed a “culture” since birds learn from one another and try new things.
    Borgia, G. Sexual selection in bowerbirds. Scientific American, June, 1986.
    http://www.wam.umd.edu/~Borgia/Bower.html

  29. scarabaeus stercus says:

    “…I do not believe they can conjugate verbs…” ’tis a human weakness.

  30. Aauughgh. Or is that yeeeaugh?
    #1. I have a lot of respect for Geoff Pullum, not just as a linguist, which I’m not one of, but as an intellect; and even [t]here, at the start of this kerfluffle, for not pulling his punches.
    And I share unequivocally his disdain for Mr. Kirby’s gushing tabloidism, not just because it’s mostly nonsensical garbage, but for the damage it does to what little truth there is behind its contrived and silly prose.
    And LHat well, obviously. Though this conjugation thing seems a little restrictive.
    Pullum’s all up on the mind-reading tip, and Sheldrake’s page on the parrot isn’t claiming he conjugates as much as he’s a telepath. It does say he has “an apparent understanding and appropriate usage of over 700 words”, something I find immediately and egregiously suspect.
    That N’kisi’s human “companion” is an aromatherapist…I wash my hands of that. Her last name seems to be “Morgana”…
    Pullum does say flatly, “I am prepared to voice doubt that there has ever been an example anywhere of a non-human expressing a single opinion, or even asking a question, ever.”
    And I don’t have a problem with that either. In fact if it was a street fight on that alone I’m shoulder to shoulder on his side. The abstract geometries necessary for those two types of communication may be solely and entirely human, at present.
    So is it all just pixie dust and happy thoughts?
    Or straw dogs, how about?
    How about the issue’s vanished in a sleight of hand, again? Since animals can’t use metaphor, or remember the dates of events, there is no possibility of telepathic bonding in a trusted relationship between certain avians and certain humans.
    There’s a coldness in the laboratory that’s not just the result of ambient temperature. And a cartoonish silliness that’s poisonous in its empty sweetness among too many partisans. People are afraid of groups like PETA the way they’re afraid of militant anti-abortion groups, with reason. Let me be real clear on that, I’m entirely unaffiliated, spiritually and politically.
    -
    So where is this thing centered, really?
    Speech versus mimicry I guess. Demanding a parrot do more than say “Amo Amas Amat Amari Amatis Amant”; that it say for instance, “I really like you, but after last night…”
    Though I’d settle for mimicry and telepathy in combination, that doesn’t seem to be an option.
    I stick with my original premise, if you can find it under all those phrases, the resistance to animal consciousness and telepathy, both, is not founded in pure skepticism, but in personal bias; a kind of Galilean heresy within the purportedly open hall of science, where the terracentric dogma is replaced by the anthropocentric. And again this is not abstraction dealing with abstraction, these views and proofs are being applied to, or used to justify, already committed acts. Acts that are inhuman, and dehumanizing to everyone involved, which is all of us.
    The Gorilla Foundation, home of Koko the purported ASL-using “ape”, is devoted almost entirely to urgent pleas for help in halting the imminent extinction of gorillas in the wild. Parrot habitat goes up in the same smoke rain-forests do. Steve Irwin’s brave paternal exploit was right in keeping with his championing a scorned and feared and seriously endangered animal.
    These debates are being held within the synod of those responsible, not in some neutral scholastic chamber. Even this now, here. Fecal accidents like Kirby’s BBC piece contaminate the debate. The skeptical light of CSICOP and rigorous minds like Pullum’s never hits the shadows around it. The truth falls away unseen.
    My concern is the attitudes toward the animals themselves, their landscapes and environment, the traditional-living people in them as well. Those attitudes grow directly out of a false view of the world, scientifically no different than that of Pope Urban VIII and the 17th century Church.
    The sun doesn’t orbit the earth; there are other minds here with us.

  31. I am sure there are people who reject any notion of animal consciousness because they want to feel OK about the abuse of animals, but I am not one of them. I stand beside you in your concern for better treatment of animals and of the environment, and I thank you for your eloquence on the subject.

  32. Mr. Kirby’s gushing tabloidism …
    I can fill in a little of the background to the story. I e-mailed the BBC commenting on the tabloid stance of the item (i.e. lack of citation, lack of critical analysis, failure to seek opposing opinions, etc) and it turned out that it’s a summary of another writer’s piece in February’s BBC Wildlife Magazine. Kirby took my point, but (I paraphrase) said that it had come down to trusting that magazine’s record for accuracy. (Reading between the lines, it may well be that he was under editorial pressure not to contradict the slant of a companion publication, even if he had doubts). I haven’t seen the original article yet, but the author is Eleanor O’Hanlon (languages and literature grad with background in Green campaigning and natural history writing) who according to Avanova witnessed the psychic experiment on videotape.

  33. Since a parrot doesn’t have the brain power to conjugate verbs, I think we have to accept the obvious: the animal is a familiar; a witches’ pet. Aimee Morgana, the owner is listed at the pagan website http://www.witchvox.com.

  34. Just to let you know, I have nothing against witches, Wiccans, artists, writers, or any other creative types. Aimee seems like a wonderful artist, animal lover, and human being in general. I also have nothing against familiars or any other magical or mythical creatures or psychic beings, and I was not trying to insult them or stir their wrath. And I love parrots almost as much as I love birds in general.

  35. Seriously, Aimee claims that the bird is linked to her telepathically–maybe the bird’s aparent intelligence and amazing behaviour is a result of this link, stemming from abilities that are more unique to Aimee than the bird. That is, maybe the birds’ intelligence is a psychic projection of some sort.

  36. Yes, yes, absolutely. I can’t think of any other explanation. The aromatherapy oils, and her name change from Aimee Irwin to Aimee Morgana, undoubtedly contribute.

  37. Ryan Barley says:

    I live with an African Grey parrot.
    When my bird is tired she says “night night, see you in the morning.” This is what we say to her at night before she goes to bed, she does not only say this at night however. She says it anytime she wants to be left alone and take a nap, if she says it during the day she will continue until she tucks her head back and sleeps.
    That could be coincedence, how about this. We just bought another bird, a little Sun Conure. The bird has to be quarantined from our current, and its quite loud. When our little bird calls to us we call back and say Hi Sunny. She’s quite loud sometimes, here’s the thing. My Grey, she doesn’t seem to like the noise so much so when the conure starts getting loud and calling alot, my Grey says, “Shutup! Stop IT!!!!” We have never said TO our bird, we have never told the little one to shutup or stop chirping, because we like it and think its healthy to call back. However, we do say “Shutup” and “Stop IT” to each other in my house. While not an often occurence obviously my bird understands because its not a mimic, its not “parroting” our behavior because our bird has only said this since we got the new bird and only when the new bird gets rowdy. Previously Buster, after beeping and calling a whole lot and getting very loud, would censor herself. “Buster, SHUTUP…” Since the new bird is here that buster is gone and its only said when the little one gets loud.
    I could rattle stories like this off for hours, my bird is 7 years old and these occurences are quite common. It is very in tune with our moods and attitudes, if a nasty tone comes into our voice or someone comes in angry Buster will instantly start cussing or rambling in a very nasty tone, this often happens without the angry person saying a word. I’m not saying she’s telepathic, but I am definately saying they are extremely in tune with human emotions, especially those of the people close to them.
    Thanks :)
    -Ryan

  38. “a number of years ago, I read an anecdotal book about languageless adults in California (illegal deaf immigrants who’d never been exposed to a natural sign language enough to learn one). I forget the title.”
    _Without Words_ , iirc (unless the one you read was a different one. I don’t remember the author, but my recollection is that it was a very interesting book.

  39. Jennifer K says:

    As a parrot owner myself, I found this debate quite interesting. While it is true that parrots aren’t as intellectual as, say, Thomas Jefferson, they do seem to possess the intellectual capabilities of young children (aged 2-4yrs). Very few parrot people will claim that their parrot is the smartest individual on the planet, but they will tell you that the animal is pretty darn smart.The issue is not so much what the parrot will say, but that fact that it has learned to say what it does and that it is able to put words into some degree of context with its surroundings. the Irene Pepperburg research with Alex the grey has been fascinating. my own beautiful African grey parrot has astounded me with his intelligence, and he’s only at the tender age of 2. While I doubt that I will ever have a fully stimulating conversation with my birds, i am able to communicate with them on very basic and rudimentary levels. This is enough for me.

  40. I had a green cheeks conure which was capable of only mimicking half a dozen sounds, so conversing with language was not an option. I can tell you, however, that anyone who has owned one of these smart little birds knows that they do have consciousness. Just watch one nervously bobbing up and down trying to decide whether to jump to a nearby object or fly and you see clearly that they think–not in words, but clearly estimating distance and their own ability to jump. Just watching how excited she got when she saw the kids arriving home from school, and how she waited for my niece to come give her attention, you see that they are beings; individuals with a spirit that can think and feel in their own way. Mine could show love, empathy, be happy, mad, sad, and even pout. They may not have the brain power of humans, but they are not just machines, they are individuals. My bird was not just my pet–she was my close and loving friend. To Jamie–In Memoriam.

  41. Felicia says:

    A quote from a January posting:
    “And yes, to simplify the point, granting consciousness to primates means that what’s been done to them in the laboratories of modern research is not just grotesque and unpleasant but is a moral crime of horrifying dimension.”
    Why is it necessary for a being to have consciousness to make it a “moral crime” to do the horrible, evil, cruel and often unnecessary procedures humans do to other living creatures?
    Apologies if you’ve all already gone over this…

  42. Commenting on ‘pooping in the water’ would be persuasive? Sure, Chaucer, my African grey parrot, does this. (The term we use for avian defecation is ‘plop’. And in reading the following, you must consider that Chaucer does not understand pronouns, using ‘you’ as another name for himself.) He took to plopping in his water rather frequently in August 2003, and at the end of that month he began saying, ‘You plopped on your water.’ I acknowledge, however, that I have never witnessed him in the act, in this particular location. I have always learned about it after the fact, when I hear him say, ‘You plopped on your water,’ and going to look, I find that there are indeed droppings in the water dish. I can’t testify to the timing of the act vis a vis the utterance, so perhaps the bird’s vocalization does not satisfy stringent standards.
    A better example of Chaucer’s ability to use language to communicate is the following: When I first heard Chaucer say ‘wanna go out’, I was in the room where his cage is located, and he was in the cage, with the cage door closed. He repeated, ‘You wanna go out,’ and climbed onto the cage door, pushing at it, rattling it, and jabbing at the latch. For a few days thereafter, if I was slow in responding to his verbal request or could not let him out of the cage at that time, he repeated his door-rattling routine, but ever since then he has contented himself with expressing the request in words alone. I have never observed that door-rattling behavior, either before or since, except in association with the vocalization ‘You wanna go out’ or ‘Chaucer wanna go out.’
    Asking questions might be persuasive? Yes, Chaucer asks questions, though not often and usually only under circumstances of great distress. For example, when my husband (who is ‘Papa’ to Chaucer) was away on business for several days, for the first time since Chaucer had begun speaking, Chaucer repeatedly asked, ‘Where’s Papa?’ — and he stopped asking the question after ‘Papa’s’ return. ‘Where’s Papa?’ was Chaucer’s own construction, something he had _absolutely_ never heard said. (He had heard me ask, ‘Where’s Zeus?’ when I couldn’t find the cat, but never, at that period, ‘Where’s Papa?’ If I didn’t know where my husband was, I called out, ‘Milt? Hello?! Where are you?’)
    Expressing an opinion could be persuasive? Yeah, he does this, too, on all sorts of subjects: for example, his own cleverness; the annoyance of a new kitten in the house; flowers as food; affection for Ryan (our son, after meeting him for the first time). On this last subject, Chaucer’s vocalizations include the following, almost all of which are of his own construction, not mere mimickings of anything he ever heard us say: ‘Ryan have to be safe… Ryan very important Chaucer… Ryan love Chau[cer]… Ryan, would you want a kiss, sweet?’ Explaining fully how Chaucer expresses an opinion or idea takes a while: for more on this subject, please go to my website (www.acleverbird.com) and read Chapter 3, Speaking for One’s Self, especially the last section.
    I have confined my comments to points raised by Geoff Pullum in the posting at the beginning of this thread, but there is a great deal more that can be said. In closing, I will note only one significant matter: Chaucer has acquired all of his English naturally, from context, and without direct instruction, training, drills or rewards of any sort, except the reward of our response to the words he uses.

  43. When it comes to animal intelligence, sceptics are often as unscientific as the believers – look at some of the emotional language here.
    Experimenters in all fields of psychology know a lot about how to avoid:
    * false positives, e.g. the cueing of Clever Hans.
    * false negatives, which can result from training methods which conflict with an animal’s natural behaviour or induce it to draw incorrect conclusions about the wider situation.
    Irene Pepperberg read and critiqued previous training and experimental techniques before she started working with Alex. Research grant panels, highly-trained sceptics, found no flaws in her research and funded it for a couple of decades. They obviously concluded that at least there was something worth investigating.
    I agree that the BBC’s article (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3430481.stm) is sensationalist and uncritical. But so’s the tile of this discussion.

  44. I’m leaving a comment to call attention to Michael Dalton’s e-mail, which I’ve added to the post. If anybody has information or thoughts about birds and speech, drop him a line.

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