Make no mistake, birds are among the smartest animals.* They have been shown to understand concepts such as cause and effect (crows have been observed placing nuts in the paths of oncoming cars in order to crack them) and intent (hiding food somewhere while aware that another bird is watching, and then coming back later to place it somewhere else). Also, they figured out how to fly, which took humans thousands of years to do and is something monkeys are still working on.
The most advanced monkey airplane prototype lacks wings, controls, and an engine. But they’ll get there.
The best way to describe parrots is probably to say that in Bird School, parrots are in the magnet program with crows, jays, and magpies. That’s the simplest and clearest way. Of course, ornithologists have much more complicated rankings and ways of describing a bird’s intelligence, but it would probably be best if they just got on board with the magnet program metaphor and let everyone else get on with their lives already.
Oooh, look, it’s a rare…oh who cares.
There are over 350 species of parrots within the order Psittaciformes, most found in warm and tropical regions. These are further divided into two families: Psittacidae (aka ‘true parrots’) and Cacatuidae (aka ‘cockatoos’ or ‘fake parrots’). The exact phylogeny of parrots is still being debated, which is the case far more often than one might otherwise imagine, and has resulted in such ‘improvements’ as six Kingdoms instead of the previous five, which does little more than just create another big hassle for freshman biology majors to deal with.
While all parrots are intelligent, the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus, lit. ‘Polly’) may be the smartest of all, a trait often attributed to an evolutionary history of cooperative feeding in central Africa, as well as a cultural emphasis on learning and going to the ‘right’ schools.**
One African Grey named Alex did the following: with a vocabulary of 150 words, Alex could distinguish and articulate the concepts of bigger, smaller, same, and different; identify an object’s color, shape, and material; and when he was tired, he would say “I’m gonna go away.” If the researcher looked annoyed, Alex would say, “I’m sorry.” If Alex said “Wanna banana” and got a nut instead, he would throw the nut at the researcher and then stare in stony silence. This is all completely true, and what’s also completely true is that if this doesn’t freak you out, nothing will.
On September 6th, 2007, Alex died in a mysterious skydiving accident at the age of 31.
RIP Alex The Upsettingly Smart Parrot, 1976-2007
Usually, however, parrots live extremely long lives.*** For instance, a parrot named Charlie in England, well over 100 years old and, some claim, once the pet of Winston Churchill. Historians and members of the Churchill family dispute this claim, though Charlie indisputably cursed the Nazis and Hitler, which, at the very least, shows that parrots also have developed the ability to make simple moral judgments.
The big problem with parrots, ultimately, is the people who own them. Not only in the illegal parrot trade that threatens them with extinction, but even legally-owned parrots bring a certain unspoken weirdness to any situation. While a parrot made a great deal of sense as a pet for, say, a pirate, nowadays they are almost exclusively owned by people with psychological problems. Although to be fair, many pirates, in retrospect, would probably have been excellent candidates for mood stabilizing drugs. Anyway, for whatever reason, people who own a parrot these days rarely disappoint in the crazy department. Though it’s unclear why people with a questionable grip on reality are attracted to large colorful talking birds…wait…nevermind.
Just as many animals offer obvious warnings to stay away (i.e. a porcupine’s quills or a rattlesnake’s rattle), so too do some pets represent obvious warnings to stay away from the owners who buy them. Parrots are like crystals worn around the necks of new-age people. They tell you everything you need to know in a glance. When you see a parrot (or a crystal) just smile, nod, and avoid.
Plus, common sense would tell you that anything that can talk – and hasn’t committed a crime – probably shouldn’t be in a cage. But on the other hand, if you let yourself get caught, maybe you ain’t as smart as you are always demonstrating in lab experiments, Psittacidae.
Parrots are colorful, both inside and out, and this makes them difficult to judge. They are undeniably intelligent, but – let’s be honest – the talking is super creepy. It crosses some important human-animal border that Nature never meant to be be broken. And their likewise creepy owners and aficionados make matters all the more unsettling. But they haven’t ever unleashed any major diseases, and the talking does show a certain willingness to try. And they do fly. But so do most birds. And so on. It never ends.
Parrots and their relative merits and demerits are likely to be debated for centuries to come, and not just on Animal Review (though probably mostly on Animal Review). In the meantime, the path of least resistance is, as is often the case, the best one.
*To be sure, there are dumb birds as well. Apparently Australia’s emu isn’t exactly the sharpest beak in the drawer, and, as has been noted, the ostrich is at least very good at making itself look dumb.
**There was a big controversy a few years ago when it emerged that several Ivy League schools put caps on the number of African Grey Parrots they admit every year. Their argument was that if they went purely by the numbers, well over half the student body would be African Grey Parrot.
***This has created a lot of problems when a parrot’s owner passes away, leaving the family to argue over who has to take care of it. Eventually, Uncle Ted just releases it into the wild, which is partially why there are wild parrot populations around the world where there shouldn’t be. Parrots, like alligators, have a big ‘Whoops’ factor as pets.