Exploring Parrot Communication: It’s Not About Conversation, it’s Understanding

Can Parrots Converse? Polly Says That’s the Wrong Question.

Exploring Animal Communication: The Parrot Paradox

In the middle of the 20th century, the scientific community was captivated by the concept of human-animal communication. Experimentation ranged from attempts to converse with apes using sign language, to training parrots to expand their English vocabulary. However, criticism emerged over the lack of rigor in the research methods and the potential for unintentional cuing of animal responses by researchers.

The Fall and Rise of Animal Communication Research

By the late 70s and early 80s, the field of animal communication research had fallen into disfavor. Notably, Irene Pepperberg, a comparative cognition researcher at Boston University, continued to push boundaries with her work on an African gray parrot named Alex. Today, renewed interest in the complexity of animal cognition, coupled with technological advancements, has brought a resurgence in efforts to bridge the interspecies communication gap. Pet owners are teaching their dogs to use ‘talking buttons’, and apes in zoos are being trained to use touch screens.

Revolutionizing Parrot Communication: A New Study

A recent paper has proposed a framework for evaluating these communication tools, aiming to provide animals with new means of expression. The study focuses on an 11-year-old Goffin’s cockatoo named Ellie who has been taught to use a tablet-based app called a “speech board”. This interactive tool contains over 200 illustrated icons, each representing a word or phrase. When Ellie selects an icon with her tongue, a computerized voice speaks the word or phrase aloud.

Analyzing Parrot Interaction with Speech Board

The research team analyzed Ellie’s interaction with the speech board and found that her selections were not random. Ellie’s usage of the speech board seemed to have an “expressive and enrichment potential”. However, Federico Rossano, a comparative cognition researcher at the University of California, San Diego, cautiously notes that this does not confirm Ellie’s intentional communication.

Assessing Corroboration and Enrichment in Parrot Communication

The researchers further evaluated whether Ellie’s icon selections matched her subsequent behavior, in a process they termed “corroboration”. They also analyzed her most frequent icon selections to determine if the speech board served as a form of enrichment. The findings suggested a bias towards social interaction or activities involving her caretaker.

Implications and Future Directions in Animal Communication

This study has sparked interest and debate within the scientific community. Despite its limitations, such as the potential for unconscious cuing by the caretaker, the study has been lauded for its systematic approach and modest claims. It marks a significant step in the field of animal communication, demonstrating a shift from the expectation of human-like language understanding in animals, towards the use of communication tools to enhance the welfare of captive animals and their relationships with caregivers.

In conclusion, the study evidences that the field of animal communication has come a long way since the controversy-ridden days of the 1970s. It symbolizes a more nuanced and cautious approach to understanding animal cognition and communication, ensuring rigorous methodology and a focus on the welfare of the animals involved. This study may well pave the way for more in-depth research in the field, potentially revolutionizing our understanding of animal cognition and communication.