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Parrot blows cover of cheatin’ girlfriend

A species that may be more accurate than the media

The ability of African grey parrots to imitate almost any sound is legendary. The one in this office can sound exactly like a telephone ringing, which is sometimes useful for driving away unwelcome callers who hang on the line too long. (Brrrrrrrrrng! Brrrrrrrrrng! “Sorry, I have to go…”)

But the African grey named Ziggy who made world news this week (he betrayed an unfaithful girl in Leeds, who was carrying on with a lover behind her boyfriend’s back in their apartment with the bird looking on) was also, we fondly believe, demonstrating the high social intelligence of these birds, which has long been explored by Irene Pepperberg in pioneering research. Clearly Ziggy didn’t like the girl friend, and got his revenge.

As Sarah Lyall told it in the New York Times today (Wed Jan 18),

“Hiya, Gary!” the parrot trilled flirtatiously whenever Chris Taylor’s girlfriend answered her cellphone.

But Mr. Taylor, the owner of the parrot, did not know anyone named Gary. And his girlfriend, Suzy Collins, who had moved into his apartment a year earlier, swore that she didn’t, either. She stuck to her story even after the parrot, Ziggy, began making lovey-dovey, smooching noises when it heard the name Gary on television.

And so it went until the fateful day just before Christmas when, as Mr. Taylor and Ms. Collins snuggled together on the sofa, Ziggy blurted out, “I love you, Gary,” his voice a dead ringer for Ms. Collins’s.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” Mr. Taylor, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Leeds, told British reporters on Monday. “I started laughing, but when I looked at Suzy I could tell something was up. Her face was like beet root and she started to cry.”

(show)

The New York Times

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January 18, 2006

Kiss and Tell: She Kisses and the Parrot Tells

By SARAH LYALL

LONDON, Jan. 17 – “Hiya, Gary!” the parrot trilled flirtatiously whenever Chris Taylor’s girlfriend answered her cellphone.

But Mr. Taylor, the owner of the parrot, did not know anyone named Gary. And his girlfriend, Suzy Collins, who had moved into his apartment a year earlier, swore that she didn’t, either. She stuck to her story even after the parrot, Ziggy, began making lovey-dovey, smooching noises when it heard the name Gary on television.

And so it went until the fateful day just before Christmas when, as Mr. Taylor and Ms. Collins snuggled together on the sofa, Ziggy blurted out, “I love you, Gary,” his voice a dead ringer for Ms. Collins’s.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” Mr. Taylor, a 30-year-old computer programmer from Leeds, told British reporters on Monday. “I started laughing, but when I looked at Suzy I could tell something was up. Her face was like beet root and she started to cry.”

Gary, it turned out, was Ms. Collins’s former colleague and current secret lover. And not only had Ms. Collins, a 25-year-old call-center worker, been cheating on Mr. Taylor, but she had been doing it in front of the bird.

“It makes my stomach churn to think about what he might have seen or heard them doing,” Mr. Taylor said of Ziggy, as reported in The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers.

He had owned Ziggy, named after the David Bowie character, since Ziggy was a chick, eight years ago, and looked on with pride as Ziggy began mimicking everything he heard – the television, people’s voices, the vacuum cleaner, the doorbell. But when it became clear that Ziggy could not be taught to stop saying “Gary,” Mr. Taylor found a new home for the bird through a dealer.

“I felt like I’d been stabbed through the heart every time my phone rang or he heard the name on the telly,” he said.

As for Ms. Collins, she and Mr. Taylor split up the evening of the “I love you, Gary” incident.

Tracked down by the newspapers at the home of friends, Ms. Collins (who has since split up with Gary, too) said that while she was not proud of what had happened, she and Mr. Taylor had been having problems and would have broken up anyway. Nor, she said, had she ever taken to the bird, resenting Mr. Taylor for preferring to stay home with Ziggy rather than go out with her.

“I’m surprised to hear he’s got rid of that bloody bird,” Ms. Collins was quoted as saying. “He spent more time talking to it than he did to me.” She added, speaking of Ziggy: “I couldn’t stand him, and it looks now like the feeling was mutual.”

* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

Grey parrots make an interesting scientific study. Many people think that the red tailed grey’s mimicry is just unthinking playback, but the bird can build quite a network of associations. Our own avian friend can detect when a visitor is thinking of leaving much earlier than the host can, and he will start saying “Goodbye!” “Goodbye!” before the guest made any sign we can detect, let alone has risen to announce departure.

Pepperberg of the University of Arizona and the MIT Media Lab is long celebrated by all parrot owners for having taught Alex, her original subject, all kinds of tricks including how to order breakfast. If Alex is offered a choice of apple or banana, say, he might specify “Apple!” and then, if given banana, he will object, “No banana, apple!”

Ziggy in Leeds is certainly a more accurate verbatim reporter than many of the rewrite men who processed the story across the world yesterday (Jan 18 Wed), it must be said. One of the satisfying lines in the British news story was spoken by the girlfriend when told by a reporter that her unfortunate boyfriend could not bear to keep Ziggy any longer now that it kept saying the name of her lover.

“I’m surprised to hear he’s got rid of that bloody bird,” Ms. Collins was quoted as saying. “He spent more time talking to it than he did to me.” She added, speaking of Ziggy: “I couldn’t stand him, and it looks now like the feeling was mutual.”

What seems like half the papers and news sites in the world excised the word “bloody” from the story, for example, CNN

“I wasn’t sorry to see the back of Suzy after what she did, but it really broke my heart to let Ziggy go,” he said.

“I love him to bits and I really miss having him around, but it was torture hearing him repeat that name over and over again.

“I still can’t believe he’s gone. I know I’ll get over Suzy, but I don’t think I’ll ever get over Ziggy.”

Taylor acquired Ziggy as a chick eight years ago and named him after the David Bowie character Ziggy Stardust.

The bird has now found a new home through the offices of a local parrot dealer. Collins, who admitted the affair, said: “I’m not proud of what I did but I’m sure Chris would be the first to admit we were having problems.

“I am surprised to hear he got rid of that bird,” she added to The Guardian newspaper. “He spent more time talking to it than he did to me.”

though not the New York Times, which we salute for its accuracy. This robust indication of the alienation of the girl from the bird was essential to the piece.

Ziggy of course would never have bowdlerized the quote in that way. But of course, anyone who knows greys knows that. There is a serious question, in fact, as to whether the species may not often be superior in wit and relevant comment to many humans.

As Marc Hauser of Harvard has commented (on what may be the world’s greatest science read, the Edge site, run by John Brockman, science’s star literary agent and idea catalyst) in an interview with Pepperberg,

In the late 1960s, a flurry of research on the great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans—began to challenge our uniqueness, especially our capacity for language and abstract conceptual abilities. Everyone soon weighed in on this debate including the linguist Noam Chomsky, the philosophers John Searle and Daniel Dennett, and the psychologist Burrhus Skinner. One corner of this debate focused on the assumption that you need a big primate brain to handle problems of reference, syntax, abstract representations, and so forth. It was to this corner of the debate that Irene Pepperberg first turned. She started with a challenge: do you really need a big primate brain to run these computations? After over 20 years of work with her African Gray parrot Alex, the clear answer is “No!”

Irene’s intellectual journey with Alex is an impressive one because she has sustained a consistent line of research exploring some of the deepest problems concerning the nature of mind, and in particular, the relationship between language and thought. Her work has revealed that Alex can grasp important aspects of number, color concepts, the difference between presence and absence, and physical properties of objects such as their shape and material. These results are not only relevant to the evolution of human cognition, but they are also relevant to the evolution of animal cognition. By understanding what animals such as Alex can do under tightly controlled laboratory conditions, we can apply such knowledge to what parrots do in the wild, the kinds of strategies they might use to negotiate in such a complex social world. How far this work will go is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that Irene, Alex and her new stars will teach us a lot along the way.

In one respect, of course, grey parrots are far ahead. Their mastery of mimicry indicates that their mirror neurons must be a huge part of their tiny but brilliant brains compared to those of the average human.

Probably the only human group that even comes close is the HIV=AIDS crowd, whose ability to ignore the scientific literature and parrot the party line without thought of any kind is now legendary.

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