Thursday, August 17, 2006

Nutty Bird Brains

There are many in the scientific community who prefer to frown down upon the cranial capacity of animal species. I have witnessed this bigotry first-hand. The following quote is an excerpt from "Animals in Translation," a wonderful scientific exposé on the mental landscape of animals written by Temple Grandin. This excerpt relates a story about a scientist, Dr. Pepperberg, who has been working with two African grey parrots, named Alex and Griffin.

One day their corporate sponsors were visiting Dr. Pepperberg's lab, and she and her staff wanted to show off what Alex and Griffin could do. So they put a bunch of colored plastic [magnetic] refrigerator letters on a tray and started asking Alex questions.

"Alex, what sound is blue?"

Alex made the sound "Sssss." That was right; the blue letter was "S."

Dr. Pepperberg said, "Good birdie," and Alex said, "Want a nut," because he was supposed to get a nut whenever he gave the right answer.

But Dr. Pepperberg didn't want him siting there eating a nut during the limited time she had with their sponsors, so she told Alex to wait, and then asked, "What sound is green?"

The green example was the letter combination of "SH" and Alex said, "Ssshh." He was right again.

Dr. Pepperberg said, "Good parrot," and Alex said, "Want a nut."

But Dr. Pepperberg said, "Alex wait. What sound is orange?"

Alex got that one right, too, and he still didn't get his nut. They just kept going on and on, making him sound out letters for his audience. Alex was obviously getting more frustrated by the minute.

Finally Alex lost his patience.

Here's the way Dr. Pepperberg describes it: Alex "gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, 'Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.'"

Alex had spelled "nut." Dr. Pepperberg and her team were spending hours and hours training him on plastic refrigerator letters to see if Alex could eventually be taught that words are made out of sounds, and he already knew how to spell. He was miles ahead of them.


At 7:15 PM, Blogger ericswan said...

The provincial bird for British Columbia is the Stellar's Jay. I have a feeding station in a mountain ash that is so abundant it takes care of the robins when they are migrating in the fall and cedar waxwings when they get here in winter. I have been teaching my jays to say "ERRRRiiiCCC". The two I have this time are this year's birds and talk alot but not Eric. I have had mature birds learn it and fly 60 feet into a neighbours tree piping Eric every time I went outside. These young guys are coming along. I will tape it when and if they finally come across. I have a bell in the ash that I ring but they haven't learned to pull on the ribbon yet. I expect they will soon

At 12:48 PM, Blogger shepherdgirl said...

I have this book on my 'to buy' list, along with the Pema Chodron book. I like you watercolors, and always admire anyone that can work with them and not make them look like mud [like me] and I admire those that have the skill and patience and eye to paint realistically, again unlike me. It is nice to see your work.

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Jade said...

Thank you, shepherdgirl, so nice of you to stop by! It is fortunate that we don't all have the same talents. I admire your work and I don't think I would be able to paint like you do either. It is refresing to see the world through different eyes and talents, non?

Thank you for the amusing anecdote, ericswan. We feed (and adore) the stellar's jays at our home as well. We haven't attempted to train them, but they usually train us to get out of bed as soon as the sun is up to throw them a few peanuts. I love how they tease our cats by one distracting the cat while the other snags a peanut. They remind us of jesters in little blue bird suits.


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