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Yes parrots speak, but do they really understand?

It's the most common question I hear when I introduce Kiwi to new people: Does she talk? ¶ Kiwi is my 5-year-old yellow naped Amazon parrot. Like many parrot parents, I answer in the affirmative and elaborate on Kiwi's vocabulary. She sings Happy Birthday, shouts "shower time" in the morning and will call "here, kitty, kitty" in an inviting tone.

Now that I have met Clearwater resident Mike Dalton, I am wondering how much Kiwi really talks.

I am always excited to meet another bird enthusiast, so when I heard Dalton would be speaking at the Largo Library on Monday night, I jumped at the chance to attend.

Dalton began by discussing his book Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.

Masters English? I taught college English for years and I think many humans have yet to master the language. Nevertheless, I tried to stay open minded.

Dalton's presentation focused on his experiences with his 16-year-old blue and gold macaw, Arielle. Based on years of research, Dalton believes Arielle has an understanding of English that goes far beyond mimicry.

"We have conversations," said Dalton.

Dalton contends that in simple conversations, Arielle answers questions that require thought and opinion, and displays a sense of humor.

To support his findings, Dalton played audio clips of Arielle speaking while Arielle looked on. Like most birds, Arielle was silent in a group of strangers.

After each clip, I found I had to wait for Dalton to give me the translation to understand what Arielle was saying. In spite of my best effort, I could only hear some of the words clearly and I certainly couldn't hear sentences.

Dalton said birds speak 10 times faster than humans, so we can't pick up all the syllables. He also excused Arielle's lack of enunciation by the low frequencies in her speech.

I am a skeptic. Kiwi speaks more clearly than Arielle, yet do I see anything in Kiwi's behavior that makes me think she really understands language?

I am not convinced.

Dalton acknowledges that current science does not accept his view of avian communication. He is hoping his research will open minds and challenge our assumptions.

After learning the word "water," Dalton says Arielle was able to recognize the concept of "wet."

When I am preparing to leave the house, Kiwi says "bye-bye" appropriately without prompting. She also tends to say "I love you" after being scolded. Is she talking or responding to subtle cues in the environment? I've always believed the latter, yet I know people who think it is important to show their bird the calendar to explain how many days they will be away on vacation.

After the presentation, I talked to a few other attendees and find that most are not bird owners but have come because the topic of bird communication is interesting. The general response seems to be one of curiosity.

I walk away unconvinced, but I enjoyed the intellectual debate.

I could sense his love for Arielle, as I love Kiwi.

As I return home, Kiwi shouts "where's the Mama?" and answers her own question with "peek-a-boo!"

>>Fast facts

To learn more

Dalton's book: Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English

Web site: www.parrot

Yes parrots speak, but do they really understand? 03/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 8:04pm]
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