Home-reared African Grey parrots vary 'speech,' nonword sounds, in a deliberate and socially relevant way

Apr 13, 2011 By Philip Lee Williams

New research by scientists at the University of Georgia has shown, for the first time, that an African Grey parrot can develop a deeper understanding of the sounds—which we hear as words—than researchers previously thought.

Although these parrots have been known for centuries to pet owners as gabby, long-lived companion animals with repertoires of dozens or even hundreds of “words,” this is the first demonstration that it is “…within the abilities of a nonhuman, nonprimate, nonmammal species that has been raised with a responsive human conversational partner in a home rather than a lab to use a variety of speech and nonword sounds in a deliberate, contextually relevant fashion.”

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

“Most of the information we have had about speech in this species of parrot has been anecdotal,” said Erin Colbert-White, a doctoral student in psychology at UGA and lead author of the research. “What we found out in this work, though, is that the speech and nonwords of the bird we studied vary with social context, indicating a level of understanding that goes beyond vocal imitation and approaches functional use.”

Other authors of the paper are Dorothy Fragaszy, professor of psychology, director of UGA’s primate behavior laboratory and chair of the university’s behavioral and brain sciences program; and Michael Covington, associate director of UGA’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

The team studied a companion-animal African Grey parrot named Cosmo, which lives with Betty Jean Craige, University Professor of comparative literature and director of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at UGA.

“To our knowledge, the current study is the first to investigate the effects of social context on parrots’ spontaneous vocalizations,” said Fragaszy.

In order to study how this works, the team videotaped Cosmo, a female, in four distinct social contexts. In the first context, Craige began recording Cosmo and left her house for the duration of the session. In the second, Craige sat in the room with Cosmo and interacted with her as normal. The third saw Craige in an adjacent room interacting with Cosmo normally by voice. Finally, the fourth context saw Craige and Colbert-White in the same room with Cosmo but reading to each other from online blog entries to simulate dialog and ignoring Cosmo (not interacting with her, making eye contact or any gesturing toward her).

“We split each transcription into separate text files according to the speaker,” said Colbert-White. “We then compiled the Cosmo text files to create one large ‘Cosmo corpus’ that could be divided according to the social context.”

The results showed that Cosmo’s spontaneous vocal production changed significantly across the four social situations. They also indicated that Cosmo’s “vocal production is largely affected by the presence and responsiveness of the social partners in her environment.”

Cosmo is already well-known among parrot-lovers, both for her often hilarious You Tube recordings and as the subject of Craige’s 2010 book "Conversations with Cosmo: At home with an African Grey Parrot."

“Cosmo merits serious scientific study for having learned to communicate and think in English,” said Craige. “She obviously has high intelligence, and she has a wonderful sense of humor; however, among African Grey parrots kept as pets, Cosmo’s ability to speak meaningfully is not unusual. What is unusual is the scientific attention to it. Erin’s paper is important because it represents scientific examination of a parrot’s acquisition of human speech in a social setting.”

While the new information about Cosmo’s abilities helps “stress the important role that socialization plays in learning to communicate,” much more study remains, Covington said.

“We can’t presume the parrot’s words mean what they would mean in English,” he pointed out.“They like human words, and they’re produced in situations where humans would say similar things, but we have to experiment to find out what they actually mean to the parrot.

“I really want to know whether Cosmo has sentence structure,” he added.“Are the words just piled together, or do they have relations like subject and object?We’ll have to do more experiments, probing deeper to find out.”

While the new research suggests that a primate or even mammalian brain may not be necessary for an individual to develop aspects of vocal communication competence, Craige has known since she bought the domestically hatched and raised bird from a pet store in 2002 that Cosmo had her own special qualities.

“Cosmo and I chat constantly,” Craige said. “She asks me, ‘Where Betty Jean gonna go?’ And she tells me what she wants to do: ‘Cosmo wanna go in a car, please?’ or ‘Cosmo wanna stay home.’ When I’m out of sight, I hear her mutter to herself, ‘Cosmo wanna a shower,’ as she heads toward the dogs’ water bowl for a bath.The other day when she accidentally dropped her cashew, she exclaimed, ‘No more!’

“I believe that she has learned to speak meaningfully because I speak directly to her—clearly, and in a simplified English—and she knows I expect her to respond. She knows she is an important member of the household.”

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Modern society made up of all types

Nov 04, 2010

Modern society has an intense interest in classifying people into ‘types’, according to a University of Melbourne Cultural Historian, leading to potentially catastrophic life-changing outcomes for those typed – ...

Is the Internet lying to us?

Nov 25, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- University of Alberta scholars talk about the relativity of truth on the World Wide Web.

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jeffhans1
5 / 5 (2) Apr 13, 2011
If these tiny creatures can learn to speak english well enough to be understood, I wonder what their own naturally occuring language consists of. I propose a study of captive African Greys who are raised among others of their kind and not influenced by our speech.
kaasinees
3 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2011
If these tiny creatures can learn to speak english well enough to be understood, I wonder what their own naturally occuring language consists of. I propose a study of captive African Greys who are raised among others of their kind and not influenced by our speech.


I also suggest two studies, one study to breed them for talking, another study to breed them for handgrip and tool handling. Lets see what they will evolve into and what happens if you put those birds together in a far later stage.

They could become better pets than a dog could have ever been to us.
dnatwork
5 / 5 (4) Apr 13, 2011
I propose we put a couple of humans in a cage and breed them for empathy.
droid001
not rated yet Apr 13, 2011
Good idea kaasinees. We need new, very simplified human language also. For parrots or future geneticaly modified or newly created smart animals.

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...