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Polly want a cracker?

By phil villarreal
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 11, 1999
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

General biology and studio arts junior Heather Shive talks to parrots, Alex and Griffin, while working as an assistant at a Biological Sciences West laboratory. Shive cares for three parrots daily, teaches them how to talk and comprehend what they are saying, and monitors their responses.

Name: Heather Shive
Age: 21
Major: General Biology and Studio Arts junior
Occupation: Teaches parrots not only to talk, but know what they're talking about.
Job Perks: Great hands-on lab experience with psychology and ecological evolution; gets to make birds say funny things.
Job Disadvantages: She can't ever use the phrase "bird-brained" on the job without getting swooped on by three intelligent parrots.

Have you ever walked into a room and been called an obscene name by a parrot?

Of course you have. And you were shocked and offended.

"Don't worry about that bird," someone would tell you. "They just repeat what they've heard. They have no idea what they're saying."

Uh, Heather Shive needs to let you in on something.

"Totally, in some ways it's true that parrots don't just repeat sounds that they hear," Shive said. "They also comprehend what they're saying, and they ask for things that they want."

Shive works in Dr. Irene Pepperberg's lab in Biological Sciences West. Shive works with three birds - Alex, Griffin and Kayaaro. Her duties include daily care, getting the birds fed in the morning and running the training session during the day.

Shive said that the birds - 22-year-old Alex, in particular - can point out objects.

"We put a plastic 'N' on the board, and Alex can make that sound," Shive said. "The letters are plastic because part of the reward is letting the bird play with the letters like toys after we're done."

All that is great - but remember the moral of this story: Next time an unassuming parrot tells you to go *#$@ yourself, don't feel bad about smacking it upside the head.

- phil villarreal