Nature is commonplace. Imitation is more interesting

GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946)


Alex The Great

In 1977, behavioural research scientist Dr Irene Pepperberg bought an African Grey parrot from a pet shop in Chicago and called him Alex - an acronym for ‘Avian Learning Experiment’. She trained him not just to mimic speech, but to understand the meanings of about 150 words - including the numbers zero to six, seven colours and five shapes.
Alex confounded the established view that a bird’s brain is too small to comprehend language. Alex even invented his own new word: he called an apple a ‘banerry’, which Pepperberg believed was a combination of the words ‘banana’ and ‘cherry,’ two fruits that Alex which was more familiar with.
Alex’s seemingly unstoppable learning process was suddenly cut short by his unexpected death at the age of 31 (roughly half an African Grey Parrot’s life expectancy). This eliminated the promise of even more progress. Shortly before Alex died, Dr Pepperberg had begun laying the foundations to teach Alex to read. She claimed that Alex had the equivalent intelligence of a dolphin, a great ape or a five-year-old human.

The Superb Lyrebird is featured on the reverse side of the Australian 10 cent coin.

Mimicking Birds

The Hill Myna, or myna bird (Gracula religiosa) is a member of the starling family and a famous talker, yet they don’t imitate other birds in the wild and only use between three and 13 call types. They do have differing regional accents which are so different that Mynas over 15km apart have no calls in common.
Asian racket-tailed drongos are songbirds that have the unusual ability to mimic the alarm calls of other birds and are clever enough to use them to their own advantage and scare rival species off.
The Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) is a dull, brownish songbird about the size of a pheasant that lives in the forests of south-eastern Australia. It is an extraordinarily accurate mimic of other birds as well as anything else it hears, such as chainsaws, camera motor drives and trucks. This is made possible by its complex syrinx (a bird’s equivalent to our human larynx). Syrinxes can even produce two different sounds simultaneously.

There is a bar in New York City that mimics the stock market every night. The real time 'drink ticker' allows the price of drinks to go up and down with the demand of certain beverages. You can play the market and get top shelf beverages very cheap when they hit the bottom of the market.

PLATO (428-348 bc)

Cunning... is but the low mimic of wisdom.

In 1995, a budgerigar named Puck held the record for the largest lexicon of any talking bird. It knew 1728 words.


You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.

Women and children are better than men at teaching parrots to speak.

Talking Elephants

It’s not just parrots and humans that can imitate sounds. Elephants can do it too. A 2005 study in Nature described a pachyderm named Mlaika who could copy the sounds of passing trucks. It could be that elephants have evolved this ability as a useful social skill. South Korea’s elephant Kosik has even been heard to imitate a number of words. He can make sounds that resemble eight Korean words, including sit, no, yes, and ‘lie down’.

Casanova’s Parrot

To get vengeance on a young woman he met in London called La Charpillon, who had sued him for assault, Casanova bought a parrot and taught it to recite ‘Miss Charpillon is more of a whore than her mother’. The parrot’s accomplishment was reported in the St James’ Chronicle; La Charpillon was furious and took legal advice, but lawyers told her it would be impossible to sue a parrot for libel. Instead, she persuaded Lord Grosvenor to buy the parrot for her for fifty guineas. She then wrung its neck.

There are wild birds in Australia that can mimic the sound of cameras, car alarms and chainsaws.