Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
The question “how smart are animals?” has puzzled many people for generations. Scientist Irene Pepperberg became intrigued with this problem after viewing NOVA TV programs about communication studies in apes and dolphins. Trained as a chemist, Irene decided then and there that her true passion was actually animal intelligence, not chemistry.
Irene plunged into learning what was already known and the revolutionary ideas of scientists who were changing how people thought about animals. At that time, in the early 1970s, people thought that animals didn’t think and make decisions but merely responded moment by moment to their environments. But researchers working with apes and dolphins were overturning that concept and showing that indeed, animals could think, solve problems, and act intelligently about what they had learned.
What about birds, Irene wondered? She had kept pet parakeets and knew they were smart and could learn to speak at least a few words. . She decided to study an African Grey parrot, a popular pet that can learn to pronounce words especially well.
She bought a young parrot, named him Alex, and got to work. To probe Alex’s mind, Irene needed to teach him to use words to describe his world. This took long, patient training. After a few years Alex could name objects and foods, such as a key, a piece of wood, or a banana. He also learned several colors, and soon could label an object by both its label and color, such as identifying “green key” or “yellow corn.” He learned to distinguish whether an object was made of wood, paper, or rawhide, and could distinguish shapes such as “three-cornered” or “four-corner.”
Alex also used his vocabulary to express his own desires. In the middle of an experimental session he might say “Want nut,” or “Wanna go shoulder.”
As the years passed, Alex kept learning. If Irene presented him with a tray of items of different numbers and colors—say 2 green keys, 4 blue keys, and 6 red keys—he could correctly answer the question “What color four?”
By the time he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, Alex had learned more than 100 labels and showed understanding of many concepts. When people asked Irene why Alex was special, she’d reply, “Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by ‘bird brain.’ It changed the way we think about animal thinking.”
Alex isn't the only bird Dorothy has written about. This book explores a University of Montana research project using blood samples from osprey chicks to investigate the effects of heavy metal refuse from mining on the ecology of the Clark Fork River.
To learn more about The Call of the Osprey, go here.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "Alex the Parrot, a Real Bird Brain." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Let your imagination listen to the great historical menagerie of presidential pets and you’ll hear the sounds of their feathered friends, like Thomas Jefferson’s mockingbirds, or Calvin Coolidge’s canaries and maybe his pet goose – OR parrots? George and Martha Washington had more than one. When President James Madison and his wife moved into the White House in 1809, so did Dolley Madison’s green and yellow macaw parrot.
Dolley was known for her fashionable turbans and often, for Polly, the big bright, squawk-ative bird on her shoulder, helping to greet her guests. And how thrilling, when high-spirited Polly swooped about the high-ceilinged rooms and dive-bombed the company! Later, she was part of the scary, War of 1812 drama, when, in 1814, red-coated British soldiers torched the White House. But at least Dolley made sure they didn’t get their hands on the precious painting of President Washington, or her precious Polly.
Just months later, General Andrew Jackson led a rough, frontier army down the Mississippi River to drive the British out of New Orleans. Victorious Andy Jackson, national hero, ended up being President, from 1829 to 1837. That old soldier knew a lot of salty language and so his pet parrot, Poll. We know this because in 1845, he attended ex-President Jackson’s funeral – at least until a shocked human carried poor Poll out of the room. Too much sad excitement had set him to squawking curse words!
At the end of the 1800s, President William McKinley amused himself by teaching his yellow-headed Mexican parrot how to whistle “Yankee Doodle.” After Mr. McKinley died of an assassin’s bullet, in 1901, former Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took office. He and First Lady Edith Roosevelt and their six children had LOTS of pets, including a big, beautiful parrot named Eli Yale. Eli was a deep blue hyacinth macaw.
There would be other presidential parrots. After all, the big worldwide parrot family has 350 species. Parakeets, for instance: John F. Kennedy’s little girl had two of them. Lyndon B. Johnson’s family kept lovebirds, little candy-colored parrots. But more than a century has passed since a big, big-beaked macaw like Polly or Poll has lived in the White House. Deep blue Eli Yale was the last - so far.
Andrew Jackson owned an African grey parrot. Wikimedia
Cockatiels, cockatoos, and large flightless kakapos are just a few of the many kinds of parrots. One of the biggest is the gentle, South American hyacinth macaw – from head to tail, more than three feet long! Wikimedia
Teddy Roosevelt with Eli Yale. Wikimedia
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Polly Wants a President." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank,
13 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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