That Damn Bird

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

Sunday, on my way back from a short vacation, I started reading Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity, by Eugene Linden, author of The Parrot’s Lament. Interestingly, parrots display many of the same intelligence traits as primates — despite the fact that they’re not very closely related at all. That Damn Bird is chock full of interesting tidbits:

In the 1970s, Greenfield looked at young children and found that at the time they start serially and hierarchically stacking toys like cups and rings in perfect order, they also start combining their labels in somewhat regular syntactic patterns; that is, they begin to produce phrases like ‘Want cookie,’ or ‘Want more milk.’


At this time, she also was looking at data from chimpanzees that were using sign language and computers to communicate with humans, and found that, lo and behold, just when the chimps started to stack their cups and rings hierarchically, they also started putting together their symbols to form phrases like “Want more banana.”


One of my students was cleaning up the laboratory and we recycle whatever we can, so she was collecting all the empty bottles, throwing them in a bin, and separating out all the caps and putting them on the counter where Griffin [a grey parrot] was sitting. She calls me over and says, “You told me that parrots are destructive foragers and that they don’t really put things together, so come here and take a look.” And there was Griffin, taking smaller caps and putting them into bigger caps, and picking up the pairs and throwing them off the side of the counter. This incident occurred at about the same time that he was saying things like “want walnut,” and “green grape,” and other combinations of that nature.

The same region of the brain that handles physical combinations seems to handle linguistic combinations. In primates, that’s Broca’s area, a region with many mirror neurons:

Mirror neurons are those bits of the brain that respond to an action the same way whether you see the action being performed or if you do the action yourself. This response occurs for both gestural actions (those done physically, with one’s hands), and those done orally (with one’s mouth). And many of these neurons are in Broca’s area. Thus data exist that can be interpreted to support the gestural origin of language; that is, that a small change in one part of the brain could have led to the change from learning communicative gesture to learning speech through an imitative program, and that the same area could indeed initially be used for both simple gestural and linguistic combinations.

Incidentally, higher primates can imitate well, but monkeys can’t. Monkey see; monkey no do.

This bit of the researcher’s bio caught my interest:

My interest in parrots developed in a somewhat unusual way. My doctorate is actually in theoretical chemistry from Harvard, but I was not a very happy chemist. I was good at it, but not very satisfied. While working on my doctorate, I saw several NOVA programs — that was the first year of NOVA — programs on the signing chimps, on singing whales, on communicative studies with dolphins, and the critical one, “Why do Birds Sing?” Researchers presented data on the complex communication of songbirds, and how it was somewhat learned.

And there was a striking interview with Peter Marler, who, as a botanist/chemist graduate student, noticed the different chaffinch dialects in the various areas in which he was collecting biological samples, and who described how he switched from chemistry to birdsong. It was an epiphany for me: First, the realization that one could switch from chemistry to studying birds; second, that nobody was studying birds the same way that primates were being studied. I had had parakeets as a child, and my pets always talked. So, here was a creature that could actually talk to you, and that seemed rather intelligent, and no one was trying to teach it to communicate with humans using meaningful speech. That’s when I decided to pursue this topic.

By the way, I did finish the doctorate. I spent 40 hours a week finishing the doctorate, and another 40 hours a week reading in the libraries at Harvard and sitting in on courses, training myself in biology, in child language, in psychology, a little bit of anthropology — all the topics one would need to pursue studies in animal-human communication.

These ideas sound just like something I wanted to devise for infants:

One of the things we were trying to do when I was at the Media Lab was to devise different types of computer-based enrichment programs for these birds. We created something called “InterPet Explorer,” which was a modified Web browser for the bird. We hadn’t developed it fully, but the bird had four choices of input. It could see video, listen to music, see pictures, or play a game that we were designing. Within each of those categories were four choices. Under the music selection, for example, the bird could initially choose from clips of rock, country, classical or jazz. Alex would play with this system for about an hour in the morning before we came into the lab.

At first he was interacting with it a lot, and then seemed to lose interest; the students were concerned that the system was a failure. I asked them, “Well, how often are you changing content?” The students looked at me as though I was insane and replied, “What do you mean?” And I said, “How often do you want to hear Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto?” They then reorganized the system to use four different channels of Internet radio so that Alex had something different whenever he clicked a choice, and Alex’s interest shot back up.

Ben Resner and Bruce Blumberg created “Rover@Home,” in which you could play with your dog over the Internet while you were at work.

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