January 28, 2004 8:50 AM   Subscribe

I, for one, welcome our new telepathic parrot overlords. "The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour." This may be old news to some, since USA Today wrote about the parrot a few years back. You can also check out the project's site which features Real Audio of N'kisi talking, in which I can only assume he is plotting to overthrow humanity.
posted by patgas (30 comments total)
Double Post...

Oh, wait, sorry, my psychic powers got ahead of me...
posted by PigAlien at 9:28 AM on January 28, 2004

Let's hope he doesn't grow teeth
posted by KnitWit at 9:31 AM on January 28, 2004

Wow, until I clicked the links, I was sure it had to be the same African gray parrot I remember reading about a few months ago, but, no, this is a different one. Those parrots must have pretty amazing noggins. Here's an Edge interview with Dr. Irene Pepperberg about her parrot, Alex (scroll down past the pictures to "That Damn Bird"). It goes into a lot more depth concerning the limits and surprises of parrot psychology, bringing in fun words like "Broca" and "Piaget."
My oldest bird, Alex, can identify about 50 different objects using English labels. He can also label seven colors, five shapes, and quantities up to and including six. He has functional use of phrases like "I want X" and "I wanna go Y", where X and Y, respectively, are object or location labels. He combines these labels to identify, refuse, request and categorize more than a hundred different items. He has concepts of bigger and smaller, of category, of sameness and difference, of absence of information, and of number.

We test him not only through direct questions about these concepts (e.g., "What color bigger?" for two differently sized and colored blocks), but also by using questions that involve complex structures—recursive phrases or conjunctive, recursive phrases—such as, "What object is green and three-corner?"; he answers all these questions with about 80% accuracy.
He also understands categories in terms of hierarchical levels, so he knows that there's this weird (to him) sound called "color" and under that weird sound are grouped all these other sounds called "red," "blue," "green," "yellow," "orange," etc. that relate to a specific set of physical attributes of objects. Similarly, he understands there is another weird sound, "shape," and under that sound there are the other sound patterns "two-", "three-", "four-", "five-", and "six-corner" that relate to different physical attributes of the same objects. We can teach him new ways of categorizing items. If he's already learned to categorize items by color and shape, we can then ask him to categorize them by number. Furthermore, Alex demonstrates a certain level of intentionality involving requests. If he says that he wants grape and you give him a banana, you are going to end up wearing the banana.
posted by jbrjake at 9:40 AM on January 28, 2004

patgas - Here's some more Parrotfilter (the Nov. 30 post on other Alex the talking parrot)

Besides talking and being psychic, parrots can pick locks and some even have prehensile penises, while others are compulsive gamblers.
posted by troutfishing at 9:54 AM on January 28, 2004

Yet more Parrotfilter, and another nifty parrot story making the round.
posted by moonbird at 10:35 AM on January 28, 2004

Here's some more Parrotfilter

posted by y2karl at 10:45 AM on January 28, 2004

While they are smart, one thing to worry about is the Clever Hans effect. Clever Hans was a horse that was claimed to be able to do higher math. But like most psychics, he was simply able to watch his handlers for cues and pick the correct answer.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:10 AM on January 28, 2004

On the other hand, perhaps it isn't Clever Hans, and so-called "intelligence" isn't so complex as we self-importantly think it is...
posted by five fresh fish at 11:39 AM on January 28, 2004

Yeah - but can it say, "FUCK THE NAZIS!" ???
posted by wfrgms at 12:48 PM on January 28, 2004

What do we do tonight, N'Kisi?

Same thing we do every night. Try to take over the world!
posted by jonp72 at 1:02 PM on January 28, 2004

I thought the original piece - which was headed "Parrot's oratory stuns scientists" - was crap journalism by BBC standards. What scientists were stunned? How many did they ask? No citation of source; no attempt to dig into the long and flakey background of this story (especially the Sheldrake connection); no attempt to find alternative opinions. Apparently the same crock is going to be repeated in the forthcoming BBC Wildlife magazine.
posted by raygirvan at 1:15 PM on January 28, 2004

My wife's cousins have a parrot and dog. By mimicking the dog, the parrot learned to bark. By mimicking the people, the parrot learned to tell the dog to be quiet. Needless to say, the dog is terrorized. Don't tell me the parrot doesn't know what it's doing.
posted by alms at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2004

perhaps it isn't Clever Hans, and so-called "intelligence" isn't so complex as we self-importantly think it is...

It's not a matter of self-importance for some people, nor is it really a matter of intelligence, so much as the question of whether the animal truly understands English (and is capable of communicating in it) that's in question. Quite a few animals are intelligent, have a sense of humour and are self-aware, some can even communicate through a learned sign language, but I haven't seen anything that this parrot or Alex can do that indicates that they truly understand English that couldn't also be achieved through careful, clever training of an intelligent animal - my dog sits when I say "sit", that doesn't mean he understands English, it means he's been operantly conditioned to perform a given action when he hears a given cue (on a rudimentary level, this can be called "understanding", but it's certainly not understanding in any greater sense). To some extent "understanding" is a matter of semantics, but either way, I don't think parrots need to be able to understand English to be considered intelligent. Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if parrots truly did understand English, but the evidence thus far just isn't convincing, hopefully there'll be something more convincing in the future. The whole "telepathic" aspect makes me even less convinced (at very least, it means I take what his owner says with a brick of salt).
posted by biscotti at 2:44 PM on January 28, 2004

biscotti hit the nail on the head. I have no doubts that grey parrots are highly intelligent critters. (And the ability to interpret the expressions of an alien species is certainly a form of intelligence.) However, Clever Hans should be an antidote to any superlative claims about what animals can and can't do. I think Clever Hans was more clever for his ability to figure out how to read his trainer than for his assumed skill of being able to calculate arbitrary digits of pi.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:50 PM on January 28, 2004


The use of tenses is the clincher. Alot of other things -- intentionality, creative assembly of sentences, etc -- these heirachize well. But tenses? That's a whole 'nother ballgame.
posted by effugas at 4:19 PM on January 28, 2004

N'Kisi: That's so cool!

This is the most important fact - that the said parrot has managed to get it's (bird) brain around what exactly qualifies as cool, something the kids in my neighbourhood will tell you I have yet to work out.
posted by ciderwoman at 5:50 PM on January 28, 2004

effugas: but is he using tenses in a discriminatory fashion, or is he simply repeating what he's been taught? Just because he says, for example, "I flied", doesn't mean that he actually understands past tense, it could easily mean that his trainer just taught him to use that in certain circumstances (the same way you can train a dog to bark in certain circumstances but not others). Again, I'd be thrilled to believe that he understands English, but I think that more is being made of this than is warranted at this point, there are explanations for his behaviour other than his understanding English, and given how trainable and intelligent parrots are, training seems a simpler answer for the behaviour we can see at this point. Yes, he has a huge vocabulary, and has learned to use certain words in association with certain things, but this does not necessarily mean that he actually understands them in a truly meaningful way (it certainly could indicate that, but that is not the only conclusion one can draw from his behaviour). Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and the evidence at hand just isn't extraordinary enough (the fact that he's smart enough to be this well trained is pretty extraordinary, I don't see any need to extrapolate from that at this point). Again, I'm not discounting animal intelligence, I happen to be a strong believer in their intelligence, emotional experiences and their capacity for humour, I'm just saying that the evidence thus far with this parrot does not support the claims being made about him (and that's without even considering the whole "telepathy" thing). If you listen to the tape of him, he's clearly mimicking his owner and following directions about what to say when she does or says certain things (she says "isn't that cool?" over and over again, and eventually the parrot says "that's so cool", this is no different than me saying "roll over" and my dog rolling over, or me saying "bark" and the dog barking - we have no evidence that the parrot came up with that on his own, and wasn't previously trained to do it). It's no different than human babies mimicking their parents (they do not understand what they are saying beyond a very rudimentary level), or dogs learning to perform behaviours in response to cues, it does not necessarily indicate anything more than that, with more data it could well be shown that there's a whole lot more going on than good training and an intelligent bird.
posted by biscotti at 6:30 PM on January 28, 2004

he may not have a full grasp of english, but hes only four years old. most human 4-year olds have only a basic understanding of the english language. (albeit more than this parrot perhaps)
posted by klik99 at 7:21 PM on January 28, 2004

Absolutely, klik99! Again, I'm not saying he doesn't understand English, nor am I saying that he can't, I'm just saying that the evidence at hand isn't enough to say that he does, and that there are other explanations for his behaviour.
posted by biscotti at 7:30 PM on January 28, 2004

biscotti, kirkjobsluder - parrots have been observed picking locks.
posted by troutfishing at 8:31 PM on January 28, 2004

Yes, troutfishing, and crows have been observed using traffic lights to time placement of nuts to get crushed by cars so that they themselves don't get crushed. Many birds and animals are extremely intelligent and show problem-solving and tool-using abilities, no question. What does that have to do with whether or not the evidence we have at hand about this particular parrot indicates that he understands the English words he uses (or is telepathic, for that matter)? Again, I'm not questioning bird intelligence, I'm questioning the interpretation of the evidence in this case.
posted by biscotti at 9:42 PM on January 28, 2004

That telepathy business is sublime in its idiocy. If they're not going to use their scientific resources responsibly then they might as well let the parrot go into the wild.
posted by dgaicun at 2:23 AM on January 29, 2004

biscotti - sorry, I guess I'm still wary that there might be people of the hoary and discredited "animals are not conscious" school of thought around here.

The parrot made me do it, from afar, with it's powers of telepathy.
posted by troutfishing at 6:04 AM on January 29, 2004

"Overthrow humanity ! Braaaak ! Overthrow humanity ! Brraaaak !"
posted by troutfishing at 6:43 AM on January 29, 2004

biscotti - sorry, I guess I'm still wary that there might be people of the hoary and discredited "animals are not conscious" school of thought around here.

No worries, but really, I'm about as far away from that school of thought as it's possible to be, I'm 100% on your side of that argument, but I also can't stand bad science.

(I have a urge to go and eat a cracker....)
posted by biscotti at 9:33 AM on January 29, 2004

Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex and other parrots is serious, and for all I know, N'kisi is also the real deal. However, the telepathy nonsense is not the only dubious part of the BBC report, for which raygirvan's term "crap" (above) is by no means too harsh.

See for some further comments. It's hard to believe that the author ("Alex Kirby") is really BBC Online's "environment correspondent" -- is he on rotation from or something?
posted by myl at 10:07 AM on January 29, 2004

My wife's cousins have a parrot and dog. By mimicking the dog, the parrot learned to bark. By mimicking the people, the parrot learned to tell the dog to be quiet. Needless to say, the dog is terrorized. Don't tell me the parrot doesn't know what it's doing.

I was in a pet store once. There was a parrot. And a puppy. The parrot said, "Here, puppy. Come here, puppy! Here, puppy!" The puppy came. The parrot bit it on the nose.

It was very entertaining. :)
posted by jengod at 11:47 AM on January 29, 2004

jengod - I'm entertained.

My brother in law used to have a cockatiel. It would terrorize his cat, but it's best aspect was that it would clean wax and dead skin from human ears with rapid, surgically precise pecking. It was faultless, except for tumors and growths - those confused the bird and it would try to remove them. Ouch. Otherwise it was a flawless groomer.

Peck peck. Brraaaak !
posted by troutfishing at 8:07 PM on January 29, 2004

I had friends who had a Mynah bird, which would make the sound of the can opener and bring the cat running over and over and over again (how the cat wasn't reduced to a shivering wreck, I don't know), and when it tired of that, it would make doorbell or knocking or barking noises to harrass the dog. An evil, but incredibly cool bird.
posted by biscotti at 8:27 PM on January 29, 2004

Nothing beats a good talking bird thread.
posted by troutfishing at 10:38 PM on February 1, 2004

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