I am much encouraged

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At last, an animal communication story involving healthy skepticism rather than vacant-eyed credulity, and human sagacity rather than wondrous communicative brilliance by our furry, finned, or feathered friends. Read on to be reassured about the intelligence of your species.

A court in Kuwait was faced with a woman who called a parrot to the witness stand. Yes, a parrot.

But instead of listening to it and believing what it said (or what it was being reported as saying), the court threw out the avian testimony.

The woman was on the prosecution side of the house. In the dock was her husband, accused of having an adulterous sexual affair with the maid. (Don't do this in Kuwait. It is illegal.)

She claimed that the parrot had overheard the husband saying flirty things to the maid, and had learned to repeat them verbatim. She proposed that the parrot's testimony should be taken as evidence that the husband had indeed been assigning sexual chores to the domestic staff.

The court agreed that the parrot knew how to say certain suggestive phrases, such as an errant husband might say to a potentially willing servant girl; but they pointed out that there was no evidence that the parrot was repeating things the husband had said, as opposed to things that had come up in a sitcom on the radio or the TV.

They did not believe the parrot was capable of telling them about the original utterer.

All this is exactly as it should be, and I am much encouraged. Parrots can phonate, but they can't tell.

So the husband got off. If that's the right phrase, given that we don't know whether he got off with the maid. (Sorry, I didn't initially intend any pun. This is a serious story.) The point I take from it is that sometimes people aren't so totally brainwashed by their pets that they imagine all the animals are talking to us — or at least that it's our fault if they aren't talking to us. The story was a breath of fresh air in a world where there seems to be no limit to journalists' low standards or readers' credulity, be it about chimp signing capabilities, parrot oratory, starling grammar expertise, dolphins using names, cows using names, or dogs as intelligent as human two-year-olds.

By the way, there is nothing new about parrots revealing stuff about sexual activities. I don't allude here just to the BBC's report that in 2006 a parrot broke up Suzy Collins' relationship with Chris Taylor by squawking "I love you Gary" occasionally (Gary was the work colleague that Chris didn't know she was also inviting round for sex occasionally; the parrot also said "Hiya, Gary!" sometimes when her phone rang).

No, I'm talking about much longer ago than that. In a thousand-year-old collection of Sanskrit poems we find the following lines:

In the morning before elders
when the parrot begins to imitate the sound
of last night's love, the wife, embarrassed,
claps her hands as if to make the children dance,
thus drowning out the telltale bird
with the jingling of her bracelets.

Are you surprised that I have such a detailed acquaintance with Sanskrit poetry, and translate Sanskrit so fluently? You should be. The foregoing translation is actually by D. H. Ingalls, in An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry (Harvard University Press; verse no. 616; two other poems have talking parrots around the same page, in verses nos. 621 and 622). And the tip-off (for in truth my knowledge of Sanskrit poetry is slender) was an email from H. Krishnapriyan, whom I warmly thank.

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