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Wild Parrots Learning To Talk From Escaped Pet Birds 225

bazzalunatic writes "Be careful what you teach a parrot. Some chatty pet parrots that have escaped back into the wild have taught wild parrots to talk. Seems the phenomenon could be integrated into the flock through generations. From the article: 'The evolution of language could well be passed on through the generations, says Ken. "If the parents are talkers and they produce chicks, their chicks are likely to pick up some of that," he says. This phenomenon is not unique; some lyrebirds in southern Australia still reproduce the sounds of axes and old shutter-box cameras their ancestors once learnt.'" While this doesn't reach the amazing level of Washoe the chimpanzee teaching sign language, it is still interesting and reminiscent of something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
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Wild Parrots Learning To Talk From Escaped Pet Birds

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  • by Kiaser Zohsay ( 20134 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @11:27AM (#37410032)

    Maybe they really are pining for the fyords.

    • There will always be more novices than experts. -- Bjarne Stroustrup

      Stroustrup obviously never worked in a COBOL shop.

  • Will now be greeted with the endless chants of "Get off my lawn!".

  • Rise of the Planet of the Parrots
    • by Ossifer ( 703813 )

      Here at Telegraph Hill, I can tell you that is one scary thought!

      (It's also only just around the corner where they can blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, which, if Hollywood has learned me something, it's that the GGB always gets blown up...)

  • by O('_')O_Bush ( 1162487 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @11:29AM (#37410068)
    You would think that entropy would degrade any language learned pretty quickly, but those lyrebirds seem to demonstrate that sort of behavior sticks rather than fades rapidly.

    Makes me wonder how small a trigger was required to spark human speech evolution. At one time, we probably weren't all that different than these lyrebirds/parrots.
  • by Slider451 ( 514881 ) <slider451@NOspam.hotmail.com> on Thursday September 15, 2011 @11:30AM (#37410084)

    Parrots learn words but not language. Associating words with rewards through Pavlovian training is not communication. Clearly spoken gibberish is still gibberish.

    • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @11:34AM (#37410146) Journal

      You must be unfamiliar with Alex the Grey Parrot. He could combine abstract concepts like "blue" and "truck" to correctly identify a toy he had never seen before as a "blue truck".

      • To be fair, African Greys are the top of the top.

      • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

        Alex was a special case. He had received decades of organized schooling from scientists, who I'd like to think make better teachers than birds.

        You can be sure that the birds in this article are just mimicking sounds.

        • by mbone ( 558574 )

          He had received decades of organized schooling from scientists, who I'd like to think make better teachers than birds.

          Why ? I think that Dr Pepperberg would say it took a decade or so just to figure out how to teach him at all, which is a disadvantage the birds wouldn't have.

          Flocks are social constructs, highly organized. They can include birds from other species (show me a human tribe that does that). That alone says that there is some active learning going on.

          More to the point, however, if these flocks ca

          • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

            by smelch ( 1988698 )

            Dr Pepperberg

            Wait.... really? I thought Dr. Pepper was already Kosher, why did the Jews make their own version?

          • by mcmonkey ( 96054 )

            Flocks are social constructs, highly organized. They can include birds from other species (show me a human tribe that does that).

            Any tribe with dogs or horses.

          • Sorry to take this a bit offtopic, but you asked for it.
            Working animals have been used throughout history for mutual benefit, and communicating with words (though not language).

            Your main point, though, is agreeable :)

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          So no true wild bird?

      • by ATestR ( 1060586 )

        Absolutely. We have an African Grey, and while Shredder (name earned from an annoying habit) doesn't have Alex's vocabulary, the words he/she does use are used appropriately. E.g.: The phone rights, and as you pick up, the bird says "Hello" before you do. You head to the stairway to call the kid down for school, and you here the kid's name before you say it. The funny thing is that you can't make the bird say anything... but you can't stop it from repeating words that it wants to say.

      • by eclectus ( 209883 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @12:24PM (#37410778) Homepage

        Or when he asked 'what color Alex?'. He knew many colors, but no one taught him the color grey. That showed comprehension as well as self awareness.

    • I would think the parrots would disagree. They already associate sounds with ideas ("I want sex", "watch out!") In various forms, and words are just sounds with meaning in the same sense. We might train parrots to associate our words with our meanings (pavlovian training), but that isn't stopping them from using our words for their own meanings.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Manax ( 41161 )
        Parrots and other birds are trained very poorly via Pavlovian conditioning. That isn't the only type of training, and Model-Rival training works much more effectively on birds (which isn't to say anything about how it works on other animals).
        • Interesting. I stand corrected. Thanks.

          • by Manax ( 41161 )
            Irene Pepperberg (the linguist that trained Alex, among others) talks about it extensively, and uses it predominantly. Wikipedia has some articles on it, and The Alex Studies (which is a collection of papers on her parrots, how they were trained, what linguistic skills they demonstrated in particular tests) talks about it in significant detail. It's a great book if you're into that sort of thing... ;)
      • by artor3 ( 1344997 )

        Equating sounds with canned meanings falls short of communicating. To rise to the level of language, the birds would need to string multiple words together in a way they had never heard before, and have other birds understand their meaning.

        Some lab animals have come close in the past, but that's not what's happening here.

        • by sjames ( 1099 )

          How does that compare to IT managers repeating buzzwords when they either don't know the meaning or the word is actually meaningless in that context?

        • er, if the bird portrays meaning in the noises it makes, that's communication. you're trying to demonstrate the difference between low level communication and complex structured language.

          also, why the requirement to have other birds understand their meaning? bird communicate all the time to each other and often with very clear meaning, just because they don't use "human words" doesn't mean they don't communicate?

    • There's been research showing parrots' use of words can be a good deal more sophisticated than Pavolvian conditioning: check out Alex the research parrot [wikipedia.org]. I don't claim this rises to the level of true language as humans use it, but neither do I think it's appropriate to dismiss it as simple stimulus/response.
    • The concept that humans alone, or only primates have language or self-awareness is simply false. Dolphins, apes/chimps, cats, dogs, and clearly even some birds have (or can learn) language and cognitive skills that clearly demonstrate capacities far beyond what they've been taught. That animals learn human languages more effectively than humans learn animal languages suggests one or more of several things:

      1. That something about the nature of human languages actually promotes abstract thought.
      2. Animals are

    • I dont suppose you could explain Alex, the infamously descriptive grey parrot? [wikipedia.org]

  • Parrots and Washoe (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

    Parrots have been observed teaching other adult parrots to talk, so I'm not sure what's more amazing about Washoe. Unlike chimps, the wild parrots learned as well.

  • Have parrots successfully passed the Turing test... this seems like very much the same approach as cleverbot... robottically repeating sounds and phrases that it once heard without any read understanding of meaning

    • by mbone ( 558574 )

      People that keep parrots (as I do) tend to be very impressed with their intelligence, although it is different from ours. They tend to have a fine understanding of people's emotional states, are very attentive to fine details, and typically can communicate well. I have no doubt that they understand some words and phrases and are not "parroting" much.

      Still, parrots have been living in flocks a long time, and probably don't need human words to communicate within them. If human language catches on, it will be

      • by Boronx ( 228853 )

        What if Julian Jaynes is right? Then the mere act of living with humans and learning to communicate as they do may change the way a bird thinks, perhaps even give it a sentience of a sort.

  • Washoe is amazing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jgtg32a ( 1173373 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @11:33AM (#37410136)
    One of Washoe's caretakers was pregnant and missed work for many weeks after she miscarried. Roger Fouts recounts the following situation:
    "People who should be there for her and aren't are often given the cold shoulder--her way of informing them that she's miffed at them. Washoe greeted Kat [the caretaker] in just this way when she finally returned to work with the chimps. Kat made her apologies to Washoe, then decided to tell her the truth, signing "MY BABY DIED". Washoe stared at her, then looked down. She finally peered into Kat's eyes again and carefully signed "CRY", touching her cheek and drawing her finger down the path a tear would make on a human. (Chimpanzees don't shed tears.) Kat later remarked that that one sign told her more about Washoe and her mental capabilities than all her longer, grammatically perfect sentences."[22]

    Damn, that's incredible
    • I enjoyed the section of the Nim Chimpsky project where they tried to replicate Washoe's success in a scenario that almost sounds like a human classroom. Dismal failure.

    • I've read the book by her handler, Roger Fouts, about Washoe and the other chimps he worked with.

      Much as I am a proponent of medical research going forward, I can't help but feel strongly that testing on chimps/great apes is one of the biggest mistakes we could possibly make.
    • It contains both original fottage from 30 years ago and recent interviews with participants.
      I was amazed with the parallels with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
      The Nim Project was designed to replicate/test Washoe's results. But its results were used to repudiate ape language. Both experiments had tantalizing result and major procedural flaws.
      Nim like Washoe could read and manipulate human emotions pretty well. But he could not control his own.
  • Wandering in the jungle hearing voices.... "Zoom zoom zoom"
    Parrots and TV commercials don't mix...

    • Years ago, my optometrist had a parrot that they kept in the office. Eventually, the parrot learned how to simulate the FAX machine and appeared to have great fun making the silly humans run over to the FAX machine when nothing was there.

      So you'll be wandering through the jungle and suddenly hear a FAX machine...

  • by emagery ( 914122 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @11:55AM (#37410356)
    While E.Starlings are not as talented at it as other mimics, they can achieve a somewhat 'bad recording' style mimic of the human voice. They're also the ones notorious for producing large undulating clouds in the sky (consisting of thousands if not, in extreme cases, millions of birds.) Point being, I've always wanted to somehow snag a gigantic flock of these birds and train them all to say something creepy like 'i'll get you' before releasing them back into the wild.
    • I'd prefer "Look out below!"

      • by emagery ( 914122 )
        Oh absolutely; in the name of brevity, I just went with the first thing that came to mind.
        • To be fair, I only just realised there's a great business opportunity here: for a fee teach the starlings to screech the name of a hat or umbrella company.

    • I've got some mockingbirds on my property that perfectly mimic my landline phone's ring.

      Annoyed the crap out of me until I just learned to stop running back in the house to answer the phone when I heard it ring.

    • by RogerWilco ( 99615 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @12:58PM (#37411238) Homepage Journal

      I had a nest of Starlings under the roof as a teenager. When the hatchlings started to move around the neighbourhood, you could hear the sounds of DOOM everywhere, as I had been playing that a lot. ;-)

      There were about 6 of them going "ratatatata Boom Psshhh" all the time. It was funny.

    • by CAIMLAS ( 41445 )

      Teach them to 'hum' Flight of the Valkyries - badly. If i were a bird, and didn't wear pants, that'd be what I'd sing.

    • I kept a common starling many years ago that had an impressive vocabulary. If only he'd known he was supposed to have a "'bad recording' style", perhaps his cursing wouldn't have been so distinct. He even had a drawl: "Woll shee-ut!"
  • None of these parrots escape from homes that frequently watch Jersey Shore. Future generations will despise us.
  • IT was funny as hell in college when I bought that bird that had problems for almost nothing.... $50.00 for a Blue and Yellow giant McCaw is unheard of and he was a nice bird, never bit hard....

    But it would wear a LOT. "fucking watermelons" was one of it's favorite things to say. It's funny for about 3 months. then the damn thing's non stop talking and swearing get's old. it would assemble strange words together as well. I had that bird for 5 years before I found a zoo that would take him and deal w

  • I keep parrots and have been predicting this for some time. The ability to talk is incredibly advantageous in a world increasingly dominated by people, and so there would be a strong selection effect in its favor. Since they can do it, and since there are birds passing between the wild and the human worlds, I would look for this to spread, especially (as the story says) for birds in city flocks.

    • > The ability to talk is incredibly advantageous in a
      > world increasingly dominated by people

      I'm skeptical that interacting with humans could increase their odds of survival.

      • I'm skeptical that interacting with humans could increase their odds of survival.

        "Bobby, listen! That bird just said 'hey pretty lady!' Oh, do give it some food!"

        • I'm skeptical that interacting with humans could increase their odds of survival.

          "Bobby, listen! That bird just said 'hey pretty lady!' Oh, do give it some food!"


          "Hey, look! These wild parrots can talk! Let's sell tickets to tourists instead of clear cutting the forest to raise cattle!"

  • I think one of the TinTin/Kuifje comics already used this as a joke, or otherwise it was an early Suske&Wiske. Which means it's from 1960 or before, so nothing new here.

    • by ianare ( 1132971 )

      In Red Rackham's Treasure, Haddock's ancestor lived on an island and "taught" the parrots his particular manner of cursing. The parrots keep on repeating the words through the generations, the joke being that as Haddock is walking through the forest he gets insulted by the parrots in the manner of his ancestor. The comic is from the 1940's.

      The article mentions that some birds do imitate human sounds that are no longer heard, as learned by their ancestors and passed on. Presumably Hergé had heard of thi

  • Rise of The Planet Of The Parrots!

    Laugh it up, talking parrots are everywhere. They have infiltrated our sites and our TVs, spreading misinformation and fanbotism in an attempt to undermine the gullible humans.

  • Krrck - Don't tame me, bro.
  • According to William S. Burroughs (and a Laurie Anderson song inspired by him), language is a virus.

  • Birds have been proven (by SCIENCE no less) to be fairly intelligent animals, totally not honoring that silly "bird brain" nonsense. Is this surprising to anyone with a minimum of interest in ornithology?

  • by sl4shd0rk ( 755837 ) on Thursday September 15, 2011 @03:59PM (#37413368)

    Have Dr. Sbaitso read a hex dump of your backups to your parrot an let him go. You'll have redundant backups forever.

Thufir's a Harkonnen now.