FOOL ME ONCE, SHAME ON YOU; FOOL ME TWICE, SHAME ON ME
by Sally Blanchard
Over the years I have heard several dozen stories of how parrots fool us. I have also experienced this phenomenon many times myself. Of course, my African grey, Whodee, had learned the sound because of the number of times my cat Skugga had been shut into the room with the bird cages. I shut the door at night in winter to keep the room warm for the parrots and sometimes Skugga hides out until I realize from her ‘rescue me’ yowl that she is inside. Now that Whodee has perfected the sound, I never know if Skugga is trapped somewhere or not.
I am not an early riser and it sometimes takes me up to a half hour to really wake up in the morning. I had never been fooled by a parrot until my late great Bongo Marie came to live with me. It took several weeks for her to relax around me, so I never expected what happened to me in the morning over a few days. I had a security system with the control box in the bedroom. I would wake up, turn it off, and stumble out to the sliding glass door in the kitchen to let my dog, Chester, out. Often, once I opened the door, I would hear the pre-alarm go off. I would run back to the bedroom and run through the off code again. One morning I started to open the door but for some reason hesitated. The pre-alarm went off in the bedroom. I was quite confused, went ahead and let Chester out and the pre-alarm went off again. As I started back to the bedroom, the same alarm sounded once more. But this time I was finally aware that it came from underneath the covers of the cage in the kitchen. I took the cover off and Bongo Marie looked quite innocent. While for the most part, I am certainly willing to concede that she was doing the alarm as a patterned behavior because she always heard the alarm when I opened the door in the morning, there was certainly an element of game playing added to her continued pre-alarm response. Of course, like many African grey caregivers, I also answered the phone many times when there was no one on the other end. Bongo Marie confused the dogs for years by learning a faithful rendition of the doorbell. They never really seemed to grasp the fact that the noise came from Bongo Marie and no one was at the door. Now Whoodee does the doorbell and I am pretty sure that the two dogs that I have now will never figure it out. Of course, there are times when he still fools me.
For much of Bongo Marie’s life, I had a wonderful goofy Airedale. It often seemed to me that Tigger’s entire purpose on life was to please me. As with a lot of terriers, he needed a lot of instruction and correction when he was a puppy. He was what was called a "Ranch Airedale" from the Midwest and as a healthy adult, he weighed just over 90 lbs. Some of these corrections were given with a firm and sometimes loud voice. This was the perfect voice for an African grey to be able to learn. I remember one time I was reading in the living room. Tigger got up to stretch before he continued his nap. Suddenly my voice rang out with a series of commands, “Move, sit, come here, lay down, sit, get over here, do you hear me, stay, come here!” For a moment, I thought that Tigger was going to try and turn himself inside out trying to follow these orders. Then he saw that I was sitting in the chair trying not to laugh too hard at him. He sighed and collapsed to finish his nap. There were a few times that she still fooled him. She often laughed after she had harassed the poor dog in this manner. I had neighbors who stopped speaking to me because I "yelled" at my poor dog so much. When another neighbor told them it wasn't me, it was my parrots they didn't believe it. One day I was outside watering the flowers and Bongo Marie started giving Tigger instructions. It was only then that believed it was my parrot.
Over the years, I had been told hundreds of stories about ways people have been fooled by their parrots. One of my favorite stories was from a man whose in-laws were coming to town. His wife was at the store and he took a shower. As he left the bathroom to go to the bedroom he was dressed only in a towel. He was shocked to find his puzzled in-laws sitting in the living room. They had driven a distance and were about an hour early. He dressed quickly and went to greet them. When they rang the doorbell, they were sure that he had called to them and told them to come in. Of course, they had been invited in but not by their son-in-law who was grateful he had wrapped a towel around his body. They had been invited in by their ‘grandparrot,’ a talkative blue-fronted Amazon.
How many times have people answered their phone and no one was there or heard the doorbell ring and no one was there. How many times have people heard the microwave or timer beep but it was too soon for the food to be done. How many times has the dog barked or the cat meowed as if something was wrong and there they were just sleeping on the couch? Just about everyone who has a parrot (especially one who loves to imitate sounds) has been fooled more than once - sometimes many times!
When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area I was out of town for a few days and had a friend taking care of my parrots. My neighbor was also watching my house and one afternoon, she noticed 3 people at my door. One of them opened the screen door and tried to enter the house. These were elderly people passing out church literature, not really much of a threat. My neighbor was quite a reactive person and called the police to tell them that some people had tried to enter my house without permission. By the time they arrived, the people were a few houses down the block. One policeman talked to my neighbor and other went down the street to talk to the people. They told him that they were greeted and asked to come in but the door was locked. They were quite worried that it was someone who couldn’t get up to answer the door. They called out hello several times and the person inside the house asked them to come in again. With the door locked, they finally decided to leave. Finally, the police left without any idea what had happened. The only part that surprised me when my neighbor told me the story was that she hadn’t realized that it was Bongo Marie extending the greeting and invitation to enter the house. I wondered if the people continued to worry about the ‘shut-in who couldn’t get up to answer the door?’
When my mother lived in southern California and I lived in northern California, she would visit me every month or so. The recliner where she liked to watch television was next to Bongo’s cage and they developed a verbal relationship that they both really enjoyed. My office was in the back room. If my mother called to me, I usually knew that she needed something and would go into help her just about as soon as I heard her. Suddenly she started to call me at 5-minute intervals. Of course, I would go in and she would ask me what I wanted. Because of her hearing loss and the television volume, my mother was not aware that Bongo had started calling me exactly the way she did. I had her change her request by saying, “Sally, come here.” It only took Bongo a few days to learn that one and the next one and the next one … Needless to say, I responded to my mother’s call a lot more than she actually called me. The reverse also happened - my mother would call out to me "what do you want?" Of course, Bongo had learned her voice too
In the last few years, I have read quite a few books about animal intelligence. One of the criteria for intelligence mentioned in several of these books is “the attempt to deceive.” The concept is that if animals attempt to deceive other animals, it means that they are aware that their behaviors can change the behaviors of other animals. Are all of the many stories about parrots deceiving us simply coincidence? Some of these stories may be but having been fooled by my own parrots dozens of times convinces me that there certainly is a purposeful intent a large percentage of the time.