Parrots and children: still silly season at the BBC

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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).

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38 Comments »

  1. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    A much bigger worry for me than the quality of the BBC's science reporting (you only have to watch BBC Prime television to see that the Corporation is total crap) is that that linguists — maybe I should just say Language Log linguists — don't seem to have any interest at all in how animals communicate, and in fact cannot mention the subject without making a snotty comparison with human language. To me, that's pointless. Yes, parrots can't tell the time, and cows can't do long division. That doesn't mean they don't communicate at all.

    Thanks to my daughter's interest we keep a lot of animals (dog, parrots, hens, goats, with cows and horses in the neighbours' field) and because my wife & I work from home we see animals all day long. The way they communicate (especially by gesture and eye movement), with each other and with us, is pretty interesting. I have learnt quite a lot, and I'm surprised you linguists always just blow it off like this.

  2. Cheryl Thornett said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    There is an odd disconnection between the BBCs science programmes and the items which appear as humorous fillers in regular news broadcasting or in magazine programmes. The editors and journalists concerned don't appear to communicate with one another. When the science or factual programmes deal with language issues, the standard is much higher, even though rarely specialist in content.
    Perhaps the news journalists feel threatened by serious scientific content and therefore prefer to approach it in in a jocular or satirical manner. I have frequently seen a similar approach in UK broadsheet print journalism. It would be interesting to know whether this is a particularly British (or perhaps just English) attitude, or whether it is found in journalism in other parts of the world as well.

  3. Bill Walderman said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    "The way they communicate (especially by gesture and eye movement), with each other and with us, is pretty interesting. I have learnt quite a lot, and I'm surprised you linguists always just blow it off like this."

    Jeremy, I think the answer to your complaint about linguists is that linguists, by definition, study human language, not communication among other species of animals, which is an interesting field of study in its own right. Human communication is fundamentally different from animal communication–and here, as a non-linguist myself, I may say some things that call for correction or refinement–it involves the manipulation of symbols encoded in oral sounds according to rules of syntax. The parrot can imitate the sounds but can't manipulate the symbols in syntactic structures to form meaningful utterances in the same way that a six-year-old human can, and that is the distinction that Prof. Pullum is drawing. But anyone who has ever lived with a dog knows that dogs can communicate in interesting and subtle ways with other dogs as well as with humans, even though they can't carry on a conversation in human language.

  4. Damien Hall said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

    Jeremy: Yes, the way animals communicate, with each other and with people, is pretty interesting. Maybe the reason why you think that that area's being 'blown off' by linguists / people at Language Log is encapsulated in the blog's very title: it's about language. Implicitly, it's about human language, but you don't even have to specify that in order to exclude from its purview almost everything about animal communication, since most animal communication is not linguistic. It's telling that the two modes of communication that you cite as especially prevalent between your family's animals and your family – gesture and eye movement – are not linguistic.

    That's not to say that linguists don't think there is anything they can learn from studying animal communication and learning, of course. Just about two weeks ago at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research in Cognitive Science (where the physical manifestation of this blog – its servers – is housed, and where at least one of the regular bloggers can be found part of the time) there was a very interesting talk on how zebra finches learn their song. I was not able to be present myself, unfortunately, but I bet a lot of linguists were. It wasn't the only abstract on animal communication that I had received recently, either (and I don't subscribe to any academic lists that don't have at least some linguistic content).

    As far as 'snotty comments' comparing animal communication to human communication are concerned, it's usually not the linguists who make them; people who comment on that kind of story here are usually reacting to some ill-informed comment by a journalist, such as the one at the end of the story here. The snottiness is in reaction to the ill-informed nature of such comments, not a judgement on animals' communication methods.

  5. John Roth said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    It's even easier to characterize the difference between language and animal signs. Human language has the ability to create an essentially unlimited number of utterances from a small stock of sounds, most of which are individually meaningless. The critical word here is "unlimited". Songbirds have a vocabulary of sounds, but they use it to create a single (or at most a small number) of stereotyped songs. There's a good discussion here:

    http://ebbolles.typepad.com/babels_dawn/2008/05/unique-properti.html#more

    The whole thing about African Grey parrots probably comes from studies Irene Pepperberg did on her parrot, since deceased (the parrot, not Ms. Pepperberg). I think she did some amazing things with it, but it still didn't get as far as a typical chimp.

    John Roth

  6. Darryl McAdams said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

    Bill, John, you go too deeply into the problem.

    Jeremy is wrong simply for this reason: Linguists study language, and animal communication is not language. It's that simple. You might as well complain that a biologist isn't studying bridges. It's not the point of the field.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    And let's not forget my bête noire, the BBC's wonderful three-headed frog.

    I'm just waiting for permission to quote the e-mails, but I finally had a response from a BBC editor on this. Their stance is quite extraordinary. I provided them a bunch of material showing the story to be herpetologically bilge, with a simple unsensational explanation, and quoted the BBC's accuracy policy at them: "The BBC's commitment to accuracy is a core editorial value and fundamental to our reputation … All the relevant facts and information should be weighed to get at the truth … checking and cross checking the facts". They say they're not going to change it – or even investigate by asking a herpetologist – because they got an expert opinion at the time and view the story as balanced.

  8. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:03 pm

    Bill, this isn't my field, but some of it seems to be common sense — at least on the surface.

    Yes, linguists are interested in humans and language, but it why should that rule out study of other animals? Medical science studies animals, especially primates (but also other animals that have human characteristics: pigs & rats & so on) for insights into how humans behave, so why shouldn't linguists want to do the same?

    Meaning no disrespect to the great Prof. Geoff Pullum, instead he's zeroed in on the ridiculous:
    "No one disputes that parrots can be trained to do a pretty good acoustic reproduction of a human utterance. And it 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."

    Even people on some pointless mission of proving that humans are better than animals would do a better job with knowledge of animal behaviour, and, paradoxically, I suppose that was Geoff's point about the BBC's science reporters..

  9. Damien Hall said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

    Jeremy: Linguists do want to get insights about human language, if possible, from looking at the way animals behave. That's why people who talk about zebra finch song-learning patterns are invited to speak at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, to an audience which will have included a large proportion of linguists. You're protesting that linguists are locking a door on themselves, when in fact the door is not only open but frequently passed through by interested people. I quote from the IRCS website:

    'The Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania fosters the development of a science of the human mind through the interaction of investigators from the discipines of Linguistics, Mathematical Logic, Philosophy, Psychology, Computer Science, and Neuroscience.'

    I am talking about IRCS because it's at my home institution, but it's by no means unique in being an interdisciplinary institute including linguistics and other related areas of study.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    Speaking for myself, I'm extremely interested in animal communication, and I believe that we can learn a great deal about human communication — and even about human language — by studying it.

    Over the past few years, I've worked with researchers studying many sorts of animal vocalizations, including several species of birds and several species of primates. I've recently been helping to advise a graduate student who's doing field work with elephants in Sri Lanka, and I'm also involved in some regular interactions with various researchers about the structure and development of birdsong.

    The possibility that we might soon understand, in detail, the neural architecture behind the learning and performance of birdsong might be the most exciting opportunity in science today, in my opinion. Birdsong is not speech, but there are many interesting similarities as well as differences. When we understand birdsong better, we'll probably also understand speech better, either because it's the same in certain ways, or because it turns out to be different — either way, we'll be further ahead.

    I also think that important issues about "theory of mind", which is at the core of communication, have been illuminated by animal studies, and the ongoing work on related problems will continue to contribute insights that apply to human communication.

    With respect to parrots and six-year-old humans, let's not get all competitive. There are lots of ways that a typical parrot is way ahead of a typical six-year-old — the ability to fly, the cognitive abilities involved in finding food in the jungle canopy, the ability to imitate environmental sounds. But the idea that parrots are like human six-year-olds in linguistic abilities is just, well, careless and stupid. They're not on the same developmental trajectory at all, and that kind of comparison doesn't help anyone understand the situation.

    In fairness to the original article, it said "the cognitive ability of a six-year-old child", not "the linguistic ability of a six-year-old child". But I don't think that's a particularly helpful statement either, and for the same sort of reason.

  11. Jonathan said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    The comparison with biology and bridges isn't apt, because living creatures and bridges are not in the same category; but language is a type of communication. It is more reasonable to expect that the study of other forms of communication might shed light on linguistics, than that the study of bridges would shed light on biology. But linguistics is often a paper-and-pencil game, played by people who treat language as a series of jots on a page.

  12. Rick S said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

    Jeremy, did you perhaps read "Stupid pet communication stories" as ((((stupid pet) communication) stories) or ((stupid (pet) communication) stories)? Try (stupid (pet communication) stories) instead.

    Never, in any of the LL posts mentioning animal communications, was there any denigration of animals for lacking language–only of stupid humans who foolishly attribute human-level linguistic and cognitive abilities to them.

    If you can't see the difference, try explaining to your dog what the LL meanies said about him (as you see it). If he cries, you can feel smugly justified.

  13. Dan Milton said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    At: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pepperberg03/pepperberg_index.html
    is an interview with Irene Pepperberg, "the main focus of [whose] work is to determine the cognitive and communicative abilities of these birds, and compare their abilities with those of great apes, marine mammals, and young children."
    She writes "What I've tried to explain to parrot owners is that what they have in a cage in their living room is a creature with the sentience of a four- to six-year-old child."
    I'm not sure exactly what "sentience" is, but her work might well be the source of the BBC statement.

  14. Jake said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    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

    Actually, no, very much the opposite in this case. Bear in mind the quote in question referred to cognitive ability, not linguistic development. The source for the six-year-old cognitive development figure is almost certainly Dr. Irene Pepperberg, one of the leading researchers in African gray parrot cognitive development, so at least in the initial pre-journalistic version, this statement was the result of responsible research. Direct quotes from Dr. Pepperberg confirm the figure which you were so quick to ridicule, limited to particular accomplishments:

    "Their communication skills are similar to those of a two-year-old child, but their adding and ability with colours and shapes are more like a five or six-year-old."

  15. Jane said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    Love the blog.
    If you want a laugh, listen to BBC Radio 4's prog, the News Quiz. It's available on Listen Again at
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/comedy/newsquiz.shtml
    I'm sure all Language Loggers will love some of the news cuttings that are read out …
    It helps to have a British sense of humour!

  16. Ellen K. said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

    Seems to me linguists don't often talk about animal communication for the same reason they don't often talk about human non-verbal communication. It's a different field of study. Not that it's never relevant. But not something that comes up frequently.

  17. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    Mark Liberman wrote, (Parrots and six-year-olds are) not on the same developmental trajectory at all, and that kind of comparison doesn't help anyone understand the situation.

    Yes. Thank you, you sum up in a few words what takes me a lot more space to say, badly.

    Others of you are not interested in communications that don't take the form of language. God knows why not — from what Mark says about his Sri Lanka elephant student it is within the bounds of your subject, so you have only yourselves to blame for that — but that is the crux of the problem, because that is how most animal communications are made: when one of our goats looks at me and then looks up at the tree canopy and then looks back at me she is asking to be taken to the forest where they graze, when the goats or the dog sniff my hands they are finding out where I have been since I last saw them, and so on. Monty Roberts' books about horse whispering explain how he communicates with horses by utilizing amongst other things the direction his body is facing. I may not be Dr Dolittle, but I still find it quite spooky and thrilling to actually be communicating with animals.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    Most linguistics textbooks do include a chapter on animal communication. Animals such as dogs, birds, bees and whales have different systems of communication, different from human ones and from each other's. Studying these systems (as well as human non-verbal communication) involves different methods from those used to study human language. I don't think that any serious linguist would disparage a someone who made a career of studying non-verbal communication, any more than such a person should disparage linguists, but non-verbal, i.e. non-linguistic, communication is not part of the field of linguistics, whether it happens among animals or humans. For instance, linguists as such do not study gestures, facial expressions, or the effect of human pheromones, all of which have an important part to play in human communication, and also in communication between humans and animals, but they are not language.

    The main reason that most linguists are not paying more professional attention to non-human forms of communication is that they have their hands full with studying human language(s). Since the languages are so varied, and human language is essential to so many aspects of human life, no linguist can have a comprehensive view of both the general field of language and all its manifestations through space and time, through society, as well as through the human lifespan. It is just not possible to study everything in depth, whether in communication or everything else.

  19. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    Rick S is right: it's the stories that are stupid, not the pets or the communication. If you look back at the post you will see that I never mentioned anything about parrots communicating with other parrots. I'm sure they do that very well. Jeremy Hawker says of animal communication that I "blow it off". But I never mentioned it, because it was not my topic. I was talking about a lack of intelligence (or integrity) in human BBC reporters. The story I was criticizing repeats an absurdly overblown claim (which, I agree, is almost certainly taken from Irene Pepperberg). The central point, it seems to me, is that the reporter appears not to be distinguishing what the parrot did (it reproduced a sound sequence that sounded like a Japanese name and address) from the entirely different action of explaining what your address is on the basis of knowing what an address is and knowing that you are supplying information that will help locate a building. The latter is something any six-year-old can do, as everyone surely knows. My point was not to criticize parrots for not being able to do it, but to ridicule BBC science reporters for being apparently unable to see that parrots don't do it. Parrots do — as Mark says — many, many wonderful things. I do not denigrate or downplay any of them. They were simply not in any way relevant to what I was writing about, so I didn't mention them.

  20. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    Well Geoff, what I got from your piece was that BBC science reporters are gullible, because they believe that parrots are as smart as human six-year-olds, which is, basically, dissing African Grey parrots. It would have helped if you had just said what Mark did, that they are simply not on the same developmental trajectory.

    (By the way, my daughter says the parrots on your website picture have been photoshopped on.).

  21. Dave Rowey said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    It seems that the BBC, and many other TV channels, has a serious science side, but unfortunately that side has no influence/input into other programmes. It's embarrassing to isten to many TV programmes discussing science. How anyone can compare a parrot to a six year old child is beyond me. Sure, parrots are good mimics, but they have no idea what they are saying, can't reflect on it. Little more than a tape recorder, really.

  22. panne said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    I don't think saying that parrots aren't as smart as six-year-olds counts as 'dissing them', any more that saying that six-year-old human children can't fly is dissing human children. It's just how it is.

  23. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 6:24 pm

    panne said, I don't think saying that parrots aren't as smart as six-year-olds counts as 'dissing them', any more that saying that six-year-old human children can't fly is dissing human children. It's just how it is.

    That's how it is if we define smart only by using human criteria (which we always do). We could make an intelligence test that would require a good sense of smell, or good hearing. But then, obviously, humans would lose,

    Flying is a bad analogy, because humans can't fly, but both humans and parrots are smart.

  24. Mertseger said,

    May 23, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    Forgive me, but I can't resist:

    "Who's a clever boy then? John Bull talked his way out of trouble"

    A stray BBC science reporter was reunited with his family in England after repeating its name and address at the local clinic that took it in, police said.

    Police captured the BBC science reporter, John Bull, earlier this month after a woman called to say he was sitting on a fence in her backyard near Spelthorne.

    The reporter was then handed over to the clinic to be cared for.

    He began by greeting people and singing popular children's songs, before repeating his name and address.

    Police matched the name with his family, who was reunited with Mr. Bull earlier this week.

    The BBC science reporter had become lost two weeks ago after departing his cubicle in Shepherd's Bush, London.

    "I'm glad I had taught him my address and name," Language Log quoted his wife as saying.

    The BBC science reporter is considered one of the most intelligent science journalists and is said by experts to have the cognitive ability of an African Grey parrot.

  25. Mark P said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 12:52 am

    "but both humans and parrots are smart."

    Only if you define "smart" to mean anything with functioning intelligence. In which case all mammals and birds are smart.

    I'm doubtful that parrots have the language ability of a two-year-old. My second child's first sentence, aged 15 months, was "away cheese!" when she no longer wanted her dinner. It would be a parrot genius that could replicate that pairing of concepts. I would guess that chimps work at about 2-year-old level.

  26. Briony Welshmerts said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 3:48 am

    Dave Rowey said, "parrots,,,little more than a tape recorder, really."

    If you believe this, then you're in good company. During the counter-Reformation, Descartes thought that animals didn't think and therefore didn't have a soul, they were mere machines. This allowed him to conduct his nasty little experiments (snipping off the tips of the hearts of live dogs) in good concience.

    Descartes was a genius, but some of us have moved on during the past three-hundred-and-fifty years.

  27. Andrew Ferguson said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 7:08 am

    David Rowey: "Sure, parrots are good mimics, but they have no idea what they are saying, can't reflect on it. Little more than a tape recorder, really."

    I think Irene Pepperberg might disagree with you there.

  28. Kevin said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    Thank you, Jeremy Hawker. I, too, have felt that Pullum's posts on the topic of animal communication have consistently given the impression that he is not simply criticizing poor journalism but that he is in what De Waal calls "anthropodenial." While I do not doubt the sincerity of his reply (that he intends no such thing), I hope that these comments make it clear that some of LL's readers have in fact come away with the idea that he has little respect for non-human sentience.

    And while I appreciate Mark Lieberman's reply, I have to assume that "The possibility that we might soon understand, in detail, the neural architecture behind the learning and performance of birdsong" means that deeply invasive experiments are being performed. This may be an exciting research opportunity, but it is also speciesist.

    As A.R. Ammons writes in Garbage: "we may be alone in / words but we are not singular in language: / have some respect for other speakers of being and / for god's sake drop all this crap about words, /
    singularity, and dominion" (50).

  29. Mark P said,

    May 24, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

    Lovely poetry — rubbish as science.

    Humans are alone in having language — which is quite independent of words. We know this because we can teach words to animals and then witness their inability to use these words as a language.

    Animals can communicate with each other, true, but we have no evidence that they can build complex structures out of simple ones — which is what language does.

    A sheep can tell another sheep "flee" and perhaps (just perhaps) "wolf", but the idea of one sheep expressing the thought to another sheep of "don't go near those woods because there's wolves in there" is too much.

  30. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 7:46 am

    Mark P: Humans are alone in having language

    Come on, are you so insecure that you get comfort from being a member of some exclusive club, the "smart" species. It's not a question (except to Geoff Pullum, perhaps, but I don't want to misrepresent him more than I already seem to have done) of whether parrots can understand human words, of course they can't (although their imitative Japanese skills seem to be much better than mine, for example). The point is that if some of us continue to only judge animals by human standards (words & numbers, etc.), then we are unlikely to get to the bottom of their real abilities — or, as Mark Liberman said, "They're not on the same developmental trajectory at all, and that kind of comparison doesn't help anyone understand the situation".

    Mark P: "rubbish as science", and young Darryl McAdams: "Linguists study language, and animal communication is not language. It's that simple."

    You probably agree with this, then:

    "Priests study the bible, and animal evolution is not in the bible. It's that simple." C. Darwin.

    "Doctors study medicine, and dreams are not part of medicine. It's that simple." S. Freud.

    "Physicists study nature, and space-time is not natural. It's that simple." A. Einstein.

    You'll never get anywhere if you don't have the energy to question first principles.

  31. Liam Proven said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:09 am

    I think the primary fact displayed by your post – and the bulk of the comments – is not that the BBC knows nothing about children, it's that you know nothing about parrots and indeed very little about animal intelligence.

    Go do some research before you spout your bigotry. Watch some of the videos of interactions between Alex the African Grey and Dr Pepperberg. Prepare to learn how very badly wrong you are.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_(parrot)

  32. Robert said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    The point of this is getting ignored in most of the comments. Perhaps you 'believe' that parrots can understand language, but in this story, the parrot does not demonstrate that it can. If I had built a robot that repeated phrases that I spoke to it at random intervals, and then I deliberately spoke my address to it, thinking that if it was ever lost this would enable it to be tracked back to me, nobody would think this was a sign of the intelligence of the linear congruential method for random number generation.

    In short, parrots may or may not have some kind of linguistic ability, but this story is far from showing it.

    In an unrelated issue, nobody should learn about Alex the parrot without first hearing about Clever Hans.

  33. Mark P said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 1:06 am

    "Come on, are you so insecure that you get comfort from being a member of some exclusive club, the "smart" species."

    Nope. Never said humans were the only smart animals. We can merely speculate how clever dolphins, elephants etc are.

    I said that we are the only species have been *shown* to have language — as distinct from simple communication of the kind birds engage in.

    If you want to show how clever parrots are, then pretending that they have language is a dead end. You'd be better off hoping that the whales come through.

  34. Geoff said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 6:31 pm

    Somebody denies that a parrot isn't a human six-year-old with feathers and they're accused of "bigotry"?

    I think animal rights are important and I think that the war in Iraq is bad. Puritans who agree shelter within the fairytale certainty of PETA or the 9/11 Truth Movement.

    Whether a person believes Alex could do what his trainer claimed he could do is not a moral issue. A bird can be valuable and wonderful without having a human-like brain. We can accuse George Bush of corruption and warmongering without ascribing him blackmagical powers.

    PS Liam, Alex was not an osbcure bird. You shouldn't use an auspicious phrase like "Prepare to learn" and then cite the Wikipedia article.

  35. Matthew Star said,

    May 29, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    This is really late, so probably nobody will read it, but I just was dragged by my kids to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago today, and after reading the above comment thread was shocked–shocked!–at what I heard during the dolphin show. The theme of the show was "Fact versus fiction" with regard to traits of Pacific white-sided dolphins, the stars of the show. One of the series of questions the crowd of mostly schoolchildren was asked to answer was "Do dolphins have a language?" The answer, presented as unassailable fact, was, Yes, they certainly do. This assurance came complete with an invocation of "scientists" as the superhuman authority that has handed down this truth, although with the caveat that "we just can't understand it." I hurled my copy of Chomsky at the presenter, but it was intercepted by a benevolent dolphin who squeaked vituperatively at me, no doubt savoring the irony of quoting John Stuart Mill at me and making me look a complete dolt in front of his mates.

  36. marie-lucie said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    Some years ago I saw a feature on TV about a team in Florida that was trying to communicate with dolphins. The first step was to teach dolphins the alphabet! Large capital letters (several feet tall) were stuck around the dolphin pool and the dolphins were subject to various training exercises to teach them letter recognition. I never heard or read any more about this experiment. No doubt it came to a merciful end.

  37. Parrots said,

    August 12, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

    Alex was an amazingly intelligent parrot, however its speaking ability was purely mimicry through repetitive training.

  38. Michael Dalton said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    I can't speak to the "age six" question attributed to your BBC. For my research of a bird learning language, I sent a transcription of some of the things my bird volunteers as she speaks to a noted child-speech specialist and linguist. I thought that my macaw's speech was more advanced, but the linguistics professor estimated the fully coherent statements to be equivalent to a three-and-a-half-year old child.

    Another question is, "If birds understand our language, why have we not learned to decode the specific messages that birds communicate to each other?"

    Mike
    Florida
    USA

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