Extraordinary Animals - Friday January 11

extraordinary animals
the genius parrot (4/7)

Continuing tonight is the documentary series profiling a range of remarkable animals from across the globe. This programme explores the case of Griffin – a parrot whose extraordinary cognitive skills have altered the scientific perception of avian intelligence.

Griffin is an amazing 12-year-old African grey parrot whose abilities are changing the way scientists think about birds. Dr Irene Pepperberg, a noted expert on avian communication, works closely with Griffin and other grey parrots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been teaching the birds to perform complex tasks of the kind previously thought to be exclusive to humans, great apes and monkeys. As well as being able to mimic human speech, Griffin can label objects, identify colours and shapes, and combine the words he has learned to form simple phrases.

According to Dr Pepperberg, Griffin’s behaviour is not just an instinctive response, but rather the result of reasoning and choice. In displaying combinatorial behaviour – recognising relationships between words and objects – Griffin shows signs of an intelligence similar to that of a young child. “Human children start combining their labels at about 22 months,” Pepperberg explains. “The simultaneous emergence of both vocal and physical combinatorial behaviours was always thought to be a purely primate trait, derived from primate brain area.”

In the case of human children, the emergence of such behaviour represents a thought process which will eventually lead to the development of language. Can the same behaviour in parrots mean that they are also capable of language? “I wouldn’t go so far to say it is syntax in Griffin,” says Pepperberg, “but it is definitely a rulegoverned behaviour.”

As well as Griffin, tonight’s documentary examines the case of Einstein – a 22-year-old African grey female from the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee with an incredible talent for mimicry. Performing at a nursery school, Einstein entertains the children with a repertoire of over 200 sounds and words. Stephanie White works with Einstein at the zoo: “African greys naturally like to mimic sounds,” she says. “She’s pretty exceptional, though – not all African greys are like her.” However, Einstein’s behaviour differs from Griffin’s in that it is based on reward, not reasoning –White uses a system of treats to teach the parrot how to perform on cue.

Professor Erich Jarvis studies the neurobiology of vocal communication at Duke University in North Carolina. By using birds as his scientific model, he has found that humans and some birds share a similar brain pathway – something which is lacking in chimpanzees. “Not even the chimpanzee, our closest living relative, is a vocal learner,” says Jarvis. The professor’s research investigates this relationship from an evolutionary perspective and suggests that humans and birds have a shared ancestry.

Through her work with Griffin, Dr Pepperberg has also concluded that the shared vocal abilities of humans and parrots has an evolutionary significance. “It suggests that there is either a very distant ancestor common to these groups,” she explains, “or that there is what we call ‘convergent evolution’ – meaning that these behaviours arose in these different species separately.”

At the end of tonight’s film, the nursery children who were treated to a display by Einstein are given the same tests as Griffin in order to compare the abilities of humans and parrots. While the results may not be of scientific significance, they are very revealing and entertaining.

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