AVIAN MOVEMENT IMITATION
by Sally Blanchard
- Several years ago, an experiment was done with an African grey parrot named Okichoro to determine if he would imitate our physical movements rather than just our sounds and vocalizations. The experiment showed that the bird was, indeed, capable of learning physical movement from humans. It is amazing to me how science keeps proving to us certain aspects of parrot intelligence and behavior that any observant companion parrot caregivers may have already figured out. Another example, the cockatoo, Snowball, showed scientists that parrots really can follow the beat of music when they are dancing.
- My first real clue about parrots imitating my motions occurred almost forty years ago with Bongo Marie, my late great African Grey. After living with me a year or so, she was totally tame and trusting of her relationship with me. She had started talking and often mimicked sounds around the house and was becoming an amazing cognitive talker.- One day as I was cleaning her cage, I noticed her acting quite strangely. She was moving her beak up and down and from side to side making a slapping type sound. I was quite worried about her because she had been so sick when I got her that she wasn’t expected to live. I had her step on my hand and took her in the bedroom where I sat down and closely examined her beak and inside her mouth. She had stopped moving her beak in that strange way but I wanted to make sure that she didn’t have a sore or something stuck in her beak. Much to her dislike, I gently toweled her and proceeded to use a tongue depressor to look inside her mouth. I saw nothing unusual, apologized to her profusely, and returned her to her cage.- I continued to clean her cage and a few minutes later, she started to make the strange beak movement again. I stared at her and the motion became even more exaggerated and in addition to the slapping sound, she started making a popping sound. It was then that the lightning bolt hit me … she was “chewing gum.” I had recently started chewing gum with a vengeance in an attempt to stop smoking (I did a couple of years later). At least it wasn’t bubble gum! For years afterward, she continued to imitate me chewing when I ate in front of her. I have often stated that we can learn a lot about ourselves from careful observation of our companion parrots. Among many things, hopefully, I have learned to chew gum more gracefully in the company of others — especially if they are short and grey!