Questions and Parrots

Parrot 1

In last week’s New York Times Book Review, author Ernest Cline was asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?” He answered, “Apes don’t ask questions, even if they know sign language.”

Well, that sent my head spinning. I posted it on my Facebook page, and I asked this question (of myself and of my friends): Is the ability to ask questions and to wonder about things specifically human? Or is it the singular ability to articulate/voice that wonder which we lay claim to?

Matt Smith, a talented writer I got to know and work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, sent me a link to a page in Birdology by Sy Montgomery in which we learn about a parrot named Alex and the woman who taught him to speak (better said, taught him some English vocabulary and concepts.) Alex had been taught colors, taught how to count, he recognized letters of the alphabet and numerals, and it seemed he could even add numbers. But the goal was not just to teach him words and numbers but to understand his thought process, to “show us something of how he saw the world.”

Parrot 2

Alex, it seems, could ask questions. When shown his reflection in a mirror for the first time, he asked, “What’s that?” He was told, “That’s you. You’re a parrot.” He asked what color he was and was told he was gray. When he noticed someone working at a desk next to him, he asked whether that person would like some food – a banana, a nut, and when told no he asked “Well, what do you want?”

He also invented words, among them “cork nut” for an almond, because of the nut’s porous shell, and “rock corn” when he encountered dried corn kernels as opposed to the moist kernels of fresh corn. He understood how language worked. He pursued information.

Inquisitiveness, the ability to question – that is, the ability not just to be curious but to seek answers, to be curious not just internally (wondering silently) but externally (asking) or, at the very least, the desire to know more, learn more, understand more – maybe it isn’t exclusively human. Again, my head spins. Setting my head spinning is a goal I embrace, a condition I enjoy.

I also embrace the act of asking questions and seeking answers.

As should any writer.

Or any parrot.

Parrot 3

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11 responses to “Questions and Parrots

  1. Now I’m going to be wondering about this same thing all day! 😉

  2. I wonder what Peaches wondered about?

    • I’m pretty sure our cockatiel Peaches looked at his cage and asked himself “Why me?” I admit, that’s a pretty sophisticated concept. We didn’t teach him any vocabulary, but we taught him how to whine.

  3. I’m pretty sure my cat asks questions. “When are you going to let me out?” “Did you miss me?” “Isn’t it bedtime?” “What’s for dinner?”

  4. Julie Paschkis

    It’s funny that the word PARROTING means to repeat something without thinking – i.e.not asking questions.

    • So right, Julie….and unless scientists can duplicate the results of this experiment, we can be a little suspicious of Alex’s reported emotions (we probably need to be a little cautious in general about how anthropomorphically we interpret animal behavior….) So now I’m trying to think of other animals who lend us their names so we can put words to our own behavior. The stock market being “bullish” is one (does. bull ever think like a bear?) and “monkeyshines” (if a monkey could talk, would he tell us how often he’s feeling blue?)

  5. laurakvasnosky

    did you hear the npr story about bowhead whales in the arctic who sing ‘jazz,’ riffing on their regular songs? seems a humanlike thing to be making music and riffing on themes. i think there are pribably many ways that humans may be less evolved than we like to think we are.
    caveat. the story of alex the questioning parrot may be a lot owner interpretation.

    • I once read an article in the Smithsonian magazine (I think) that claimed scientists had heard whale songs which were broken into “phrases” that deliberately rhymed.Not sure what to make of that, though the possibility appeals to me, as does the idea of their riffing like jazz musicians.

  6. dude! of course animals ask questions. My dog will lay her head on the bed and look up at me, “may I get up?” and I say “OK!” and she happily jumps on the bed. I have lots of examples, that’s just one. mostly “can I go?”

  7. Wonderful and interesting post. I’d love to have a parrot like that. Though… come to think of it, he is just a tad scary…

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