Excellent imitators, parrots also understand what they say and interact with humans. They thus compete with the great apes
Every night when we leave the lab, Alex says,I’m going to dinner. See you tomorrow. Those few words wouldn’t matter if Alex wasn’t a 22-year-old gray parrot and two decades of working with him hadn’t shown us that he understands human speech. If communication is indicative of animal intelligence, then Alex has shown that parrots are as intelligent as great apes or dolphins.
When we started our research, the cognitive ability of parrots was poorly understood. The parrots that had been studied were just repeating what they had been taught. Yet this misunderstanding was easy to spot while laboratory chimpanzees communicate with humans through sign language, by computer or through special tables, parrots speak using our words.
According to Nicholas Humphrey of the University of Cambridge, primates have acquired advanced cognitive and communication skills because they live in complex social groups. So we thought that this explanation was also valid for the african grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus): these animals live in the dense forests of equatorial Africa, where vocal communication plays an important role. Adult birds use whistles and calls that the young learn by listening.
In the laboratory, parrots have been shown to be capable of symbolic and conceptual tasks, often associated with complex cognitive and communication skills. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s, Otto Koehler, of the Zoological Institute in Königsberg, and Paul Lögler, of the University of Freiburg, discovered that parrots that observed a series of eight flashes of light then knew how to select sets with eight elements. So parrots understand the representation of a quantity. This faculty is a sign of intelligence.
However, other zoologists, such as Orval Mowrer, at Harvard University, believed they had shown the inability of birds to associate a term with a given object, that is to say the absence of a form of referential communication. . One of the parrots of O. Mowrer learned to say “Hello” when his trainer arrived, who rewarded him with food. However, the same bird came to say “Hello” anytime, so that, not receiving any reward, it ended up saying “Hello” at all. Other parrots repeated sentences, but most of these birds did not learn anything.