Spikey LeBec Changing his Behavior for AttentionShowing Real Intelligence
By Sally Blanchard
Just before my move to Colorado, I received calls from a local television station, a filmmaker, and a representative of National Geographic. They were interested in doing stories on parrot intelligence. I could tell them about a lot of very interesting situations where companion parrots have shown evidence of intelligence, but they needed film footage of a parrot doing something intelligent. The woman from the local station did not seem to understand how difficult it would be to get footage of a parrot actually “being intelligent” according to her definition, but I gave her a few phone numbers in the hopes that she would find what she needed. I have had some experiences with the media that shows me that for the most part they really “don’t get it” when it comes to parrots. The exception to this would be a filmmaker who has knowledge about parrots or is really open to learning about them and/or is intuitive enough to really understand what constitutes proof of intelligence in regards to parrots.
One of the people I talked with suggested that footage of a parrot show would be helpful to show parrot intelligence. I saw a delightful parrot show a few months before and, indeed, the parrots were doing smart behaviors … but does a bird show with birds doing rote trained tricks show intelligence? Not the kind of adaptability and creative intelligence I am writing about — however, if a trained (or untrained) parrot changes his routine for a stronger response or reward then that shows that he is aware that his behavior can change the behavior of others. This is a significant criterion for the real intelligence that many parrots exhibit.
Years ago when I used to do a monthly seminar at the San Francisco SPCA, I would bring Spikey along and he would do a few of his tricks. His favorites were hopping when I “wound him up", doing a somersault in my hand, and rolling over to play dead when I asked him if I had too much garlic on my pizza, but he also knew how to put rings on a pole and how to put a small whiffle ball into a hoop.
One time during his routine the second time he was supposed to put the ball in the hoop, he tripped over himself in his enthusiasm and the ball rolled off of the table. Everyone laughed and a woman in the front row picked up the ball and returned it to him. He then put the ball into the hoop and everyone applauded. His next trick was to put the rings on the pole. He picked up one of the rings and was headed towards the pole. He stopped suddenly and, looking at the woman in the front row, walked to the edge of the table and dropped the ring. She again picked up the ring for him. He held it for a few moments watching the audience for their reaction and then dropped it on the floor again. Of course, his newfound friend obliged him by handing him the ring again. The audience could “see the wheels turning in his brain” and laughed and applauded with more enthusiasm than when he had done what was expected and put the ball in the hoop. Spike had changed the variables and he never put the rings on the pole again. I suppose if I had had a great investment in him doing his tricks correctly, I could have worked with him with food treats and retrained him to do “the right thing” but I actually enjoyed the fact that he had changed his routine to get more applause … and there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that he did this intelligently.
After one program, I held Spike up for his applause. Without any previous training, he held his head high, spread his wings and swayed back and forth to the applause. The audience loved this cocky behavior and the applause and laughter became thunderous. The louder the applause the more he strutted his stuff. He did this manipulate the audience to give him a greater reward for his performance. This “curtain call” became Spike’s normal behavior at the end of just about every seminar and there is no doubt in my mind that he had intelligently and creatively learned to get what he wanted by manipulating his audience. Every time he hears anything that even sounds like applause, he spread his wings, swayed, and bowed.