Stupid pet communication stories are back. (Did they ever go away?) Yesterday the BBC published a story (thanks to Sam Tucker for the reference) about a stray red-tailed African grey parrot that told police how to find its owner. It was in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo in Japan. After repeating its name and address at the local veterinary clinic (where police had turned it in after capturing it), the bird greeted people for a while, then sang some popular children's songs, and then supplied its name and address. From what it said, police tracked down its owner, and took the parrot home.
The story is probably true in outline. No one disputes that parrots can be trained to do a pretty good acoustic reproduction of a human utterance. And they will do just as well on an address as on a line from a children's song or a few verses from the Kor'an; the content doesn't matter — for them, there is no content. But a paragraph at the end of the story reveals that the BBC still brings out its most gullible writers (or perhaps its most cynical and dishonest writers) as soon as anything to do with the cognitive or linguistic sciences comes on the scene. The last para says this:
The African Grey parrot is considered one of the most intelligent birds and is said by experts to have the cognitive ability of a six-year-old.
They mean a human of age six. There are people writing purportedly serious stories for the British Broadcasting Corporation who think that a grey parrot has the cognitive ability of a normal six year old human child. Have these people never met a normal six-year-old human child?
Could it really be that people writing for the BBC have never noticed the astounding comprehension and inference capabilities that children have and birds lack? Or is it that the person writing the above was completely innocent of knowledge about parrots?
I could elaborate (I did once have a six-year-old child with whom I conversed quite a lot), but there really is little point. I do not understand how this sort of claim can cross the desk of an editor and make it onto the BBC site. No one who thought about the claim for ten seconds could possibly believe it.
I realize that what most journalistic writers on animal language use as a measure of linguistic development is the singularly stupid yardstick of number of words known. But even so, no one has provided evidence of parrots being able to utter more words than a six-year-old human knows.
And increasing size of the number of utterable words does not correlate with cognitive ability, of course: a human child knows what words mean, and can use them to form sentences with relevant meaning, and infer things correctly from other people's utterances. If my son Calvin had been lost at the age of six, he would not have given the policeman a chorus of "Baa baa black sheep" before explaining that his address was 36 Locket Road, Wealdstone.
Perhaps, as Mark once suggested, at the BBC they just don't care. For now, I'm inclined to think that the BBC's coverage of science, especially cognitive and linguistic science, still deserves the ridicule that has been heaped on it in the past here on Language Log (this post on Language Log Classic offers a sample, and lists a few other posts on BBC science reporting).