Mon | Dec 10, 2018

Tony Deyal | Parrots high on the token pole

Published:Saturday | September 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM
The Jamaican yellow-billed parrot.

What do you call a parrot that seeks cover under an umbrella in a rainstorm? Polly-unsaturated.

How can you tell if a parrot is intelligent? It speaks in polly-syllables. What would you call a parrot that has deserted its domicile and headed out into the wild blue yonder where, for several days, it remains perched on a roof until its owner eventually calls in the fire brigade thinking that the parrot is in serious trouble? If we were referring to a mathematical construct, we would call it a polygon, but since all parrots by default are known as 'Polly', then it is a 'Polly-gone', right? No, this Polly, pretty and loving as she is, despite all the endearments she received from anxious people trying to help her off the roof, actually went wrong.

The story, according to the UK Mirror earlier this month, was that Jessie, a multilingual macaw that knows and repeats words in Turkish, Greek and English, became stranded after escaping from an enclosure at her owner's home in Edmonton, north London.

Jenny remained on the same roof for three days, and, fearing that she may have been injured and so unable to come down and return to her home, her owner called the fire brigade to the scene. They were told that it would help to tempt Jessie off the roof if they were to be as friendly as they could to the bird, including sweet-talking her with her favourite endearment, "I love you." Perhaps they should have learnt from her response of "I love you back" to each of them that she was not all that innocent.

Her next response to their attempts at bonding was to tell them a two-word phrase ending with "off". In Trinidad or Guyana, she would immediately be categorised as not just an ordinary parrot, but a 'cussbud'. However, in England, she quickly became a celebrity.

She was not the only parrot who made it to the big time with or without the four-letter words. In Muncie, Indiana, The Associated Press reported that a noisy parrot that likes to imitate sounds helped save a man and his son from a house fire by mocking a smoke alarm.

Shannon Conwell, the bird's owner, said he and his nine-year-old son fell asleep on the couch while watching a movie. They awoke at about 3 a.m. to find their home on fire after hearing the family's Amazon parrot, Peanut, imitating a fire alarm. "He was really screaming his head off," Conwell said. They were all three able to escape.

A parrot named Willie also saved a little girl's life by alerting the child's mother that her daughter was in danger. Willie saw that the child, Hannah, was choking on her breakfast and turning blue. He started flapping his wings noisily and squawking, "Mama! Baby!"

Hannah's mother, Megan, was able to save the baby's life, and they were all together when Willie was awarded the Red Cross' Animal Lifesaver Award in Denver, Colorado, USA. Talk about a happy family!

Another parrot, more like Jenny than Peanuts, is Barney, who belongs to Geoff Grewcock, owner of the Warwickshire Wildlife Sanctuary in Nuneaton, England. Barney is a cussbird who not only swears all the time, but the more Barney tries to stop him, the more he swears.

What makes it worse is that Barney has now started to teach the cusswords to two African greys, Sam and Charlie, who belong to a species considered the smartest members of the parrot family. It would not be long before they open their own school of language training and start teaching some West Indians a word or two.

If we were willing not just to listen, but also to learn, parrots could teach us a lot more than obscenities. A new study has found that parrots are not just highly intelligent and verbal, but may also ruffle their head feathers and blush to communicate visually. If you thought only brides did that, cancel the June wedding and think again.

Another study shows that it might be better to make a parrot the minister of finance of your country than a professional in some other discipline, engineering, perhaps. As several of our Caribbean countries headed towards the annual Budget Day drama, some parrots were making better economic decisions than our governments.

Even though many of us don't think much of these politicians in any case, we have to admit that the process of budgeting should at least require weighing up differently beneficial alternatives to maximise profits and sometimes learning to forgo immediate rewards for future gain or benefit.

The birds were tested to see if they could learn how to trade a token for a low-, medium- or high-value food. What the study found was that the parrots only rejected the immediate reward and chose the token if the token's value corresponded to a higher-quality food compared to that of the immediately accessible food. The results show that parrots are capable of deliberate and profit-maximising decisions.

I still am not sure, especially given my expenditure on gadgets, if I am as smart as an African grey. I might know as many swear words as Jenny, Peanuts, Sam and Charlie, but I am definitely not in the class of Alex, the wonder parrot, who, before he died in 2007, had a vocabulary of 150 words, knew the names of 50 objects, and could, in addition, describe their colours, shapes and the materials they were made from.

The Economist says, Alex even knew when and how to apologise if he annoyed someone. Now that feat, in addition to being able to manage the national tokens as well as a parrot, is clearly something that is beyond the capacity of at least one minister of finance I know.

In fact, it is a pity that parrots have shown greater interest in home security than national security. Given the rising crime throughout the region, parrots, with their sharp brains and eyesight, would do very well in that ministry. They would certainly offer more than token resistance to the criminals in charge.

- Tony Deyal was last seen asking, "Why is politics for the birds (and not only in Antigua)?" Because politicians always parrot the same old lies!