Parrots can identify objects but not ideas

Q: Our African grey parrot is now 3 years old, and he is as good a talking bird as we were told he would be when we bought him. Our question: How much does he understand when he speaks? We have read a lot on the subject, and there seems to be quite a bit of conflicting information.

A: Until 20 years ago, most of what you read about bird communication was anecdotal. But there has since been a lot of laboratory research performed by Irene Pepperberg in a scientific manner with her African grey parrots. Everyone who has kept parrots as pets has stories about what their birds say and when they say them, and Pepperberg has duplicated most of those situations in her research.

For example, my scarlet macaw, Harry, lives in my pet store, and when the store phone rings, he says “Parrots of the world,” as that is how we answer the phone. This is cute but not earth-shattering — it is just one sound that is made when a particular event happens, i.e., the phone ringing.

Harry also says “Marc” whenever I walk in the room and he sees me, and he must have learned to do that just by watching what other humans do when they see me. I always thought that such observational learning was pretty clever of Harry until I read Pepperberg’s work and saw that one of her experiments was to have two humans talk to each other in front of her grey parrot Alex. Alex would learn to identify an object they were holding by just watching and listening to the two humans.

So, yes, a bird can identify objects, events and sounds with spoken words, but it seems hard for them to use a spoken word to identify an idea. If Harry wanted me when I wasn’t in the room, he would never say my name; he says it only when he sees me.

The kind of communicating that parrots do with us is no different than what our other pets do. When a cat goes to the refrigerator and meows at us, or a dog scratches at the door and then turns its head to you and barks, or a rabbit sits in front of the door to its cage and stamps its foot, these are all animals communicating ideas to us and not responding to a stimulus. They are just not doing it in our English language.

Q: My corgi-dachshund mix has gotten quite overweight. I switched her to a low-fat diet, but she really does not like it at all, and she is always hungry and scrounging for food. I remember years back you wrote in this column about using canned pumpkin to help a dog to lose weight, and we have a lot of it in our house right now because of Thanksgiving. Could you explain again what to do?

A: The reason she doesn’t like the food is because, without the fat in it, it’s not savory. However, for some reason, canned pumpkin seems to have a texture and flavor that appeals to dogs – I have even seen wolves and foxes eat pumpkins, so the appeal of them must be universal in the canine world. The nice fact about pumpkin is that, because it has no fat, no matter how much the dog eats, it won’t gain weight.

What you need to do is replace half of the volume of food that it takes to satisfy your dog with the canned pumpkin. Note: It has to be canned pumpkin, and not pumpkin pie mix. If it takes 4 cups of dry food or two cans of canned food to fill up your dog enough so that she walks away from her food dish without asking for more, then give her 2 cups of dry food and 2 cups of pumpkin, or one can of dog food and whatever amount of pumpkin will equal the other can of dog food. This way, she can eat as much as she wants and still be satisfied, yet she is getting half the calories she was getting before, along with the vitamins and minerals she needs to stay healthy.

Marc Morrone: