Friday, October 30, 2009

Baby and Her Buddies

You should meet Baby, a Muloccan Cockatoo who belongs to my friends Steve and Janice. Baby's a character. She's mischievous, she's noisy, and she's a hoot!

In her screechy voice Baby announces, "I be good! I be good!" This, however, is not always accurate. Sometimes Baby be bad! On a number of occasions she has walked into the bathroom and, with her beak, turned off the valve on the toilet, making it impossible to flush! Baby spends a lot of time out of her cage. They returned one day to discover her beak all shiny from a stick of butter she'd eaten from the butter dish, after she had destroyed the silver salt and pepper shakers. She's also destroyed the phone, the mail and a pressed back oak chair. Poor Baby. Since ruining the chair she gets put back in the cage before the last guy leaves the house.

Baby loves to be the center of attention. When Janice sits on the couch, Baby sits next to her or on her shoulder, and chatters. Even patient Janice wearies of this from time to time. When Baby is especially unruly she will put her in "time out" -- on the front room floor with a cardboard box over her for five minutes. Not to be outsmarted, Baby starts to peck, making little holes in the box. One day Jan got busy and forgot that Baby was under the box. When she remembered Baby she went to check on her. Baby had pecked herself a hole big enough for her head to pop up out of the box. And sitting around the box looking quite interested were three curious cats!

Baby shares the house with five other birds, including Pierre, an African Gray. Pierre had belonged to a man from the French Congo who, during the fight for independence, had given him to a CIA agent who was leaving on the last flight out. Janice says they are always trying to get secrets out of Pierre, but he won't share them! Another African Gray, Georgie, doesn't say much. She just sits on a plastic lady bug that she thinks is her egg.

The best talker among Janice's birds is Cicero. When Jan gets up in the morning Cicero asks, "Whatcha doin'?" And when the lights get turned off at night Cicero says, "OK, time for bed." Cicero not only speaks well, he also says appropriate things, and uses phrases she's never heard him say before. He'll say to Baby, "Baby, you be quiet!" "You're a bad bird!" "Stop that!" When one of the family is scolding Baby, Cicero will say, "I didn't do it!"

And Baby answers, "I be bad!"

Upon Janice's recommendation, I recently read a book by Irene M. Pepperberg called Alex & Me {How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence -- and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process}. It chronicles Pepperberg's 31 years of work with Alex, an African Gray -- an amazing bird who not only repeated what he heard but also learned complex tasks and displayed complex reasoning abilities.

In my favorite Alex story Pepperberg tells of a demonstration she was doing for a group of sponsors of her research program, highlighting Alex's ability to recognize the individual sounds that make up complete words. Grouping plastic refrigerator letters by sound, each group in a different color, Alex would answer her questions: "What color is 'ch'?" "What sound is purple?" and so on. Each time Alex would answer correctly. After each correct response Alex would ask for a nut. "Want a nut," he would say. But they were pressed for time so she ignored his request, planning to reward him when the demonstration was complete. This went on for a while, Alex responding correctly even if he didn't get a nut. Here's how she describes what happened next:
"What color is 'or'?"
"Good bird!"
"Want a nut." Alex was obviously getting more than a little frustrated. He finally got very slitty-eyed, always a sign he was up to something. He looked at me and said slowly, "Want a nut. Nnn...uh...tuh." (pages 178-179).

Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know, as Pepperberg states (page 219).

If you doubt that, just spend some time at Steve and Janice's.

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