Apr 17

“Polly Want a Cracker”

In Brief—Some (not all) of what you always wanted to know about parrots. They’re much smarter than you thought.


No More “Dumb Animal” Nonsense—

“Polly want a cracker” belongs to the dark ages when humans thought birds were…well-l-l, “bird brains.” Turns out they’re as smart as your little four-year-old genius. Maybe smarter.

Scientist Carl Safina wrote a wonderful book about his observations of animal intelligence. “Beyond Words” will forever change the way we humans see animals…except, of course, your view that the family dog is smarter than a whip. I am compelled to add that I must make an exception for the King Charles Spaniel. They’ve been bred to have a skull too small for their brains. Dog breeding is an abomination…but that’s a subject for another piece.

But back to animal intelligence. Safina has studied and observed elephants, dolphins, killer whales (Orcas), bonobos, chimps, wolves, dogs, crows and more. Elephants, dolphins and killer whales recognize themselves, have names, superb memories, are peaceable and much, much more. Did I mention peaceable? Despite this, it’s a mistake to believe that they think as humans do since they have their own way of seeing the world that is every bit as complex as ours. I heartily recommend that you read Safina’s book. It will elevate the way you look at the animal kingdom.

Parrot:palm bgEnter the Parrot—

This piece is about parrots, however. Researchers have generally ignored parrots until recently, not least because they were harder to study than warblers and tits. No longer. New York Times science writer Natalie Angier wrote an article with lots of beautiful photos that revealed the truth behind years of relative silence.

Turns out that parrots are not just colorful pets or fixtures in pubs that whistle at entering females, they are more intelligent than previously thought thanks to the work of Dr. Juan Masello. Hands covered by parrot bite scars from their strong beaks, Dr. Masello reports they are not only beautiful and inspirational, they are amazing beyond words. Parrots are so smart they are often referred to as “feathered primates.”

So how smart are they? Parrots rival the great apes and dolphins in their ability to think creatively AND they have a sense of rhythm. Ingenious creatures, they make and use tools as well as teach their young how to do this. They communicate in distinct dialects and can easily learn the dialects of other parrots. Their longevity can be between 50 and 90 years or more, remarkable for any animal.

Tropical and subtropical birds, parrots adapt to different environments as can be seen in Southern California where a few escaped green parrots now can be seen in large noisy flocks in the palm trees there.

My mother related a story about the pet parrot in her childhood home. The parrot was good at imitating their telephone ring, pause a moment and then imitate the servant’s “Telephone, Miz Vrooman, telephone.” My grandmother had to learn that it was the parrot, not the phone. Years later, as the parrot was dying, it tried to climb the stairs to my grandmother’s room, but died before it could make it. Loyalty? Love?

I mentioned parrots’ rhythm earlier. You haven’t lived until you watch Snowball, a cockatoo, groove to Michael Jackson’s music. It can be found on youtube by typing “Snowball, parrot” into your browser. “Amazing” is the word.

If you want to learn more about parrots and their cousins than the little I have written here, I recommend you click on the link below. You’ll be glad you did….and you may even want to go out and buy a pet parrot.



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      • Linnea on April 17, 2016 at 21:40

      I want to hang out with a parrot!

        • Don Bay on April 18, 2016 at 07:12

        Before you hang out with a parrot, be sure to read Elodie’s comment. That clever parrot may outlive us all.

        I have no doubt that you can teach that parrot a thing or two. The intelligence goes both ways.

      • Don Bay on April 18, 2016 at 07:16

      Another great clip. This parrot is a legend in its own time. Thanks to you and Susan, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this parrot twice. Look out Snowball!

  1. Great Post, Don. Just one thing: anyone thinking about buying a parrot should be mindful of the fact that since they’re so long-lived and intelligent, they should be prepared to have this parrot for the duration of the OWNER’S life.

    Parrots are smart and affectionate and become attached to their owners, and to have someone change their mind or — heaven forbid — die on them would be traumatic for the bird. Also, be forewarned that until you’ve heard a parrot screeching in its cage, you don’t know the meaning of the word loud. I’m talking damage-your-hearing loud. Something to think about.

    I have a blog post about a house that was in my family with a short little story about a parrot that lived there.


      • Don Bay on April 18, 2016 at 15:46

      Welcome to Mr.Toad’s Wild Ride. Thanks for the important facts on parrots, not least on their longevity and the responsibility that goes with it.

      I perused your blog lightly and intend to spend more time reading it closely. Interesting and well-written. I tried to sign up as a follower but was stymied by the fact that I’m not a Facebook participant. There’s a reason for that, but this is not the forum for that.

      If you are interested in receiving a heads-up every Sunday when I post a new piece, go to the right side of my Home page and subscribe. My administrator will knock on your door but won’t force you to receive a bunch of stuff you don’t want to be bothered with. Subscribe. You’ll be glad you did.

      1. Thanks, Don. I’ll do that. You should be able to follow my blog without joining Facebook. I’ll see if I can figure it out for you.

          • Don Bay on April 19, 2016 at 10:31

          Thanks, Elodie. I found that you had subscribed to the blog. Unfortunately, given my paranoid concern about Facebook, I was unable to sign up as a follower of your blog unless I became a member of Facebook.

          To explain Elodie’s comment to other readers, Elodie and I were both in the belly of the corporate beast a number of years back, so in renewing our acquaintance, I emailed her to welcome her to the blog. I suggested that if she was interested in getting a weekly heads-up when I posted a new piece, she might subscribe on the right side of the blog’s Home page. She did it, so anybody who’s interested can do the same thing.

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