We have had a male parakeet, Peanut for about three years. We set out to try to get a male for a couple of reasons. We were told that they may bond to people easier and that they are more likely to “talk.” Well, despite our efforts, little Peanut has not uttered a single word, but he has mimicked several other sounds with amazing accuracy. He imitates the sound our laptop (in the same room) makes when it is ejecting a CD. It’s kind of a “grit-grittt” grumble. He can imitate my husband’s nicely-controlled, deep-pitched, elongated “whoo – whoooo” whistle very well. He can also imitate my very poor, airy-sounding, high-pitched “whit-whit-whit” whistle perfectly with all of its imperfections. In fact, Tom can’t tell if I made the whistle noises, or Peanut did them. I think a few things from our textbook are going on in these communications, particularly where he is imitating us. Peanut is making perceptual categorizations. He is showing stimulus generalization by recognizing that Tom and I are both humans (or at least not parakeets) and that he recognizes our whistles as something we do when we are trying to communicate with him. He doesn’t make these whistles in his regular repertoire of natural tweeting noises. He only does them when we are in the room, or when he sees or hears us walk by his room. He is showing stimulus discrimination because he only does my weak whistle for me and Tom’s great whistle for Tom, so he has shown that he recognizes the difference between the two of us. If I am typing on the computer and not paying attention to him, he whistles my whistle, not Tom’s, to get my attention and vice versa. Us giving attention, talking, and whistling back at him are the reinforcers. He is not using language, but rather a vocalized match to sample by imitating us with the right pitch and many other specific nuances of our whistles. There is certainly no grammar or syntax involved. We modeled the behavior we were looking for with endless repetitions of our whistles which, in the beginning, were simply met with Peanut tilting his head and listening. There was shaping involved. When we first got him and whistled at him, we praised any replies he made. Now, he only gets praised when we hear good renditions of our whistles. Certainly, there are physiological limits that prevent him from truly using human language. He could someday expand his vocabulary, but it would be purely imitation or the aptly-named “parroting.” Despite the limitations, it is still awfully cool to hear his dead-on impressions of us.
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