The renowned vocal abilities and intelligence of African Grey Parrots have long fascinated scientists, bird enthusiasts, and pet owners alike.
Unlike other parrots, these birds are not just skilled mimics. They exhibit cognitive abilities that challenge our traditional understanding of animal intelligence.
One question that immediately comes to mind when you see them talking is: Can African Grey Parrots truly understand what they say?
For a long time, it was thought that birds were not intelligent enough to understand what they were saying.
But experiments with African Greys have shown recently that we might need to rethink these ideas.
In this article, we will try to answer this question based on the most current research and information available.
The Science Behind African Grey Speech: Mimicry vs. Understanding
Mimicry is the act of imitating sounds, and it’s a behavior exhibited by many birds, not just parrots.
For African Grey Parrots, the sounds they often reproduce include human speech, which can give the illusion of understanding.
However, mimicry in itself doesn’t necessarily equate to comprehension. Most parrots mimic their owners without truly grasping the meaning of the words.
This mimicry is a result of their environment and the sounds they’re frequently exposed to.
For instance, a parrot might greet someone with “How are you?” not because it’s genuinely inquiring about their well-being; but because it has heard the phrase repeatedly when someone enters a room.
Yet, there are exceptions. Some specially trained African Grey Parrots, like Alex, have shown a deeper understanding of language.
Alex could identify objects, colors, and shapes and even demonstrated basic counting abilities. Such feats suggest a level of cognitive processing beyond mere mimicry.
Let’s discuss two such famous African Grey parrots in greater detail.
Can African Grey Parrots Understand What They Say?
African Grey Parrots have been the subject of numerous scientific studies due to their impressive mimicry skills.
Two parrots, in particular, Alex and Griffin, have made significant contributions to our understanding of avian intelligence.
The Case of Alex
Alex, an African Grey Parrot, underwent extensive training and research under Dr. Irene Pepperberg.
By the end of his life, Alex could identify 50 objects, seven colors, and six shapes.
He could count up to eight and even combine words to describe new objects, like calling an apple “banerry” because it tasted like a banana and resembled a cherry.
Such behaviors indicate a level of cognitive processing and understanding beyond mere repetition.
Griffin’s Experiment: Inference By Exclusion
Griffin, another African Grey Parrot studied by Dr. Pepperberg and her team, showcased cognitive abilities surpassing even those of 5-year-old humans in certain tasks.
In a study involving a classic test of intelligence, Griffin was able to make complex inferences, pointing to the potential flaws in the test itself.
The classic test of intelligence that Griffin was subjected to is known as the “two-cup test.” In this test, a reward is hidden in one of two cups.
Subjects are then shown that one cup is empty, and those that successfully choose the other cup are believed to employ a process called “inference by exclusion.”
This means reasoning that if the reward is not in cup A, it must be in cup B.
For many years, this two-cup task was considered the gold standard in assessing the ability of both young children and various animal species, including grey parrots.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her team, however, believed that this test only demonstrated a certain level of ability and might not be a comprehensive measure of inference by exclusion.
To delve deeper, they introduced more complex versions of the test: the three-cup and four-cup tasks.
In the three-cup version, one reward is hidden in a single cup, while another is placed in one of two additional cups.
Participants should choose the single cup, as it’s the only guaranteed reward. This doesn’t test inference by exclusion directly, but rather the understanding of certainty versus mere possibility.
The four-cup test is more intricate. Rewards are placed in one cup of each pair. One cup in a pair is then shown to be empty.
Successful subjects will choose the other cup in that pair, understanding that it must contain the reward, while the other pair offers only a 50-50 chance.
Interestingly, Griffin outperformed even 5-year-old children in these tasks.
These results with Griffin indicated that the traditional two-cup task might not be the most effective measure of cognitive ability.
Griffin’s success in the more complex tasks suggests a deeper understanding and ability to make inferences, challenging previous notions about avian intelligence.
These parrots’ achievements in research settings suggest that, under the right conditions and with appropriate training,
African Grey Parrots can indeed understand certain words and concepts, rather than just mimicking them.
Context and Association in African Grey Speech
African Greys, when exposed to consistent interactions, can begin to associate certain words or phrases with specific events or objects.
For instance, upon hearing the word “treat” followed by receiving a favorite snack, an African Grey might start using the word when it wants that snack.
At a basic level, many parrots mimic sounds around them, be it the chirping of other birds, the ring of a phone, or snippets of human conversation.
However, when African Greys repeatedly encounter specific words in consistent contexts, they can move beyond mere mimicry.
They begin to demonstrate a rudimentary form of contextual understanding, just like Alex could understand different colors, shapes, and materials.
When shown a blue paper, he could say “blue” and “paper,” indicating a deeper association than simple repetition.
Wild vs. Captive African Greys: Are African Grey Parrots God Gifted or is Their Ability a Result of Training?
Whether in the wild or in captivity, African Grey Parrots exhibit remarkable cognitive abilities.
However, their learning patterns, behaviors, and interactions differ significantly based on their environment.
In the wild, African Grey parrots primarily learn from their surroundings and their flock.
Their vocalizations are often influenced by the need to communicate with fellow parrots, warn against predators, or attract a mate.
They develop unique dialects specific to their territory and group, which helps them distinguish between their flock and other parrots.
Social cues play a pivotal role in their learning, and their vocal prowess is often a tool for survival, helping them fit into their environment and social structure.
In captivity, the dynamics change. African Grey parrots no longer have a flock to communicate with or a vast natural environment to interact with.
Instead, they often see their human caregivers as their primary social group.
This shift in social interaction leads them to mimic human speech and other household sounds more frequently.
For example, a study shared by the University of Georgia delves into how parrots in captivity vary their speech and non-word sounds deliberately.
Their desire to “fit in” with their human family can drive them to learn and mimic words, phrases, and even tones of speech.
Also, captive parrots often receive positive reinforcement for mimicking speech in the form of treats or attention, which can further encourage this behavior.
However, while they might mimic human speech more frequently in captivity, that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it better.
This form of mimicry is still rooted in association and context.
In fact, in contrast to their wild counterparts, captive parrots might not develop the same range of natural vocalizations or dialects.
Their speech patterns are influenced more by their human environment than by the natural world.
However, with enough time and effort, African Greys can learn to understand the meaning of words in captivity as well.
Their intellectual capabilities are innate; they are not the result of training.
They learn to speak words in captivity because it helps them bond well with their human flock.
The Broader Implications
The extensive research and observations on African Grey parrots offer a broader perspective on animal intelligence as well.
These studies challenge our egocentric understanding of cognition as a purely human trait.
The capabilities of African Grey parrots, such as Griffin and Alex, to perform tasks that even some human children struggle with highlight how we often underestimate animals.
Despite birds and humans being on separate evolutionary paths for nearly 300 million years, these two unrelated species have developed similar abilities.
This prompts intriguing questions about the nature of intelligence: How did such cognitive abilities evolve in parrots?
What environmental and social pressures led to the development of these skills?
Clearly, the roots of intelligence are much more deep-seated and more multifaceted than we imagine them to be.
In summary: African Grey Parrots do understand, to some degree, what they say.
While they may not fully grasp the depth of human language, they certainly associate words with contexts, actions, and reactions.
The studies, particularly those involving parrots like Alex and Griffin, have shown that these birds can make associations, understand concepts to a certain extent, and even exhibit problem-solving skills.
These capabilities of African Grey Parrots also serve as a reminder that intelligence in the animal kingdom is diverse, multifaceted, and not solely a domain of humans.