Cosmo is a parrot. Specifically, she is an African Grey parrot and she lives in Georgia with Dr. Betty Jean Craige, a professor of literature and humanities. If you have spent more than five minutes reading my blog here (or elsewhere) you have already likely picked up on the fact parrots often edge out most people as my all-time favorite companions.
Parrots (unlike some people I’ve met) make smart, funny, hugely affectionate companions under the right circumstances. The right circumstances include that the parrot has to be bred and trained to live in captivity with humans, and the human has to be sensitive to what the parrot needs and be willing to spend the time to offer it.
In the way of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her crew of African Greys, Dr. Craige has spent an inordinate (and no doubt deeply fulfilling) amount of time studying the ways of parrots. Or, specifically, she has spent a great deal of time studying one particular parrot – Cosmo. Dr. Craige has even written a book about her experiences called “Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot“.
With this book, and unlike Dr. Pepperberg in her official role of animal researcher studying African Greys, Dr. Craige is also not shy to claim that Cosmo has done something called “acquiring language”.
Why is this significant, you might ask? It is significant because acquiring the comprehension and use of language is what many humans feel sets us apart from “lower” beings such as birds and other animals. My argument, vastly unscientific though it may be, is that we can spend all the time we like stoking our egos with the idea that we alone possess language. But the more likely scenario is that we simply don’t speak “bird” or “horse” or “elephant”, so we just don’t recognize it even when it is spoken all around us.
In Cosmo’s ability to acquire and use language, one African Grey parrot has taken that first step forward to let us know that this may very well be the case. Cosmo can communicate using the words she has learned from the English language at the level of a young child. What is more, she clearly enjoys the ability to partake in conversations with Dr. Craige.
Or, as Dr. Craige writes, “What do we learn from these achievements by our non-human companions? We learn that they have a capacity for thinking and feeling way beyond what we previously attributed to them.”
Cosmo can ask her owner (I prefer the term “parront” myself), “Where are you?” when she wants to locate her. She can tell Dr. Craige what she wants for dinner or where she wants to go. She understands the concept of “work” (although for a parrot, “work” basically involves being talked to, played with and fed treats all day – so little wonder Cosmo wants to go with Dr. Craige to “work” every day!)
Furthermore, while Dr. Craige is continually careful to state that she is not certain Cosmo is intending to communicate with her by using the English words she has learned, nevertheless, the result of this shared command between parrot and person of certain English words has all the hallmarks of what we commonly term “communication”.
Cosmo also tells jokes – and not just in the sense of “parroting” them back at Dr. Craige. No, Cosmo makes up her own jokes and then laughs at the punchlines.
In “Conversations with Cosmo”, Dr. Craige states, “We must realize that all of us—humans and animals alike—are thinking all the time about one another, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with fear, sometimes with affection. We all have an active mental life. The struggle to survive and find pleasure requires it.”
Like Dr. Pepperberg’s Alex and more recent African Greys she has been working with, Cosmo is clearly a very special bird, although she is likely not nearly as special as she appears to be. The difference between Cosmo and many other parrots in the world today is the presence of a single mentor – her parront, Betty Jean Craige – who believes in her and pushes her to reveal the hidden secrets of a parrot’s full potential.
Today’s Takeaway: As human beings, we often do get caught up in feeling like we are somehow separate, apart from, different than, other beings we share this planet with. How – if at all – has that opinion affected your own life, and the connections you are able to have and maintain with pets and other non-human beings? How would it change your interactions with your own pet and other non-human beings if you knew they were capable of learning your language (or you theirs) so you could communicate?
Gray parrot photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 22 Jan 2013