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African Grey

Talking Parrot Shows Amazing Intelligence


Recent news stories about N'kisi, the African grey parrot with a vocabulary of 950 words and the ability to use them in past and future tense, plus use creative ways to produce sentence structures, did not escape my attention.


I love animals and I especially enjoy stories that exhibit the smart ways in which they learn to manipulate the people who think they are in control of the beast.


With the possible exception of the porpoise, I believe the African grey parrot is among the most intelligent animals on our planet.


Our son, Aaron, once kept an African grey parrot at his home. I had the privilege of having personal contact with this lovely bird and learning something about it.


The African grey lives a very long time, often having a life span exceeding the average human. Even though it can mimic the noises of civilization, including the humans it comes in contact with, the parrot remains, throughout its life, a wild animal. If given the chance, it will escape into the wild and remain there until captured once more.


Also, as exhibited by the New York bird N'kisi, the African grey exhibits a special intellect and cunning that may sometimes exceeds that of its keeper. Not only does the bird imitate the voices of the people around it, it also mimics the sounds of passing vehicles, running motors and even unspeakable (and often embarrassing) body and bathroom sounds.


Much of the cunning of the bird is demonstrated in its timing for choosing the sounds it makes; often a time that proves especially embarrassing for the homeowner or guest that comes in contact with the bird.


Parrots also have very long memories. Once it learns a word, a phrase, or a certain sound, it can be repeated years later, and in the very voice reflection of the person that taught the sounds to the bird.


When I was a child, I knew of an old widow of a seafaring man who kept a parrot in her home that had sailed with her husband before his death. This beautiful bird with its bright green and yellow plumage spent much of each day resting quietly on its perch in the front parlor of that home. We could see it through the windows, but never were allowed to come inside. The story was told that the bird had such a terrible vocabulary, after years of living with men at sea, that the old woman would not allow children to get near it.  


The African grey, N'kisi, has shown such remarkable talents it has been visited and studied by the famed chimpanzee woman, Dr. Jane Goodall. It also has been featured in different wildlife magazines and newspaper and Internet publications.


One story said that N'kisi may be the most advanced user of human language in the animal world.


Indeed, I think I know some humans that don't use a vocabulary of as many as 950 words. It is said the average reader of a daily newspaper only needs to know about 100 words.


That N'kisi uses the words it knows in structured sentences, and in inventive ways, demonstrates a form of animal intelligence that should make most people, especially those who feed upon the carcasses of the creatures they kill, stop to think about what they are doing.


What is even more remarkable about this bird is that it demonstrates a sense of humor in some of the things it says.


From what I remember about Aaron's parrot, they also like to play tricks on the people around them.


And in case you wonder . . . yes the things the birds say make sense. They usually comment about things they can identify that are within sight. But there have been moments when birds appear to holding limited conversations, mostly responding to things told to them.


When you think about it, a talking bird like this might open doors to the very mind of the animal world around us.