Sing along with birds who know the­words

The Review - - Opinion - Jim Smart Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web­site at james­mart­sphiladel­phia.com.

There was an ar­ti­cle in a mag­a­zine about new sci­en­tific stud­ies which show that birds have re­mark­able cog­ni­tive skills. One type of bird brain that gets stud­ied a lot is Psittaci­dae, which in­cludes par­rots, para­keets and the like.

One re­searcher had a Gray Par­rot that de­vel­oped a vo­cab­u­lary of more than 100 words and could as­sem­ble them into sim­ple sen­tences. It made me re­call some birds I have known.

A friend of mine taught his par­rot to say to any­one who got too close, “Stand back! I’m an ea­gle!” The same bird in­cluded in his reper­toire, “I can talk. Can you fly?”

There’s a sad story about one pre­co­cious par­rot. This was about 75 years ago, so I guess it isn’t un­kind to tell it now.

A fam­ily my mother knew had a par­rot that could speak lots of words. Ev­ery morn­ing, the mother of the fam­ily would call her son’s name up the stairs to wake him up. Soon, the par­rot be­gan call­ing him, too. Af­ter a while, his mother didn’t bother to holler for her son. At the right time ev­ery day, the par­rot would yell his name over and over.

Then, the son died. But the par­rot called for him at the same time ev­ery morn­ing, over and over, im­pa­tiently. The fam­ily had to give the bird away.

My ear­li­est ex­pe­ri­ence with birds was with my grand­mother’s ca­naries. She had three through the years. They were all named Dickey. And they all tweeted their lit­tle yel­low heads off.

One died when I was a lit­tle boy. I re­mem­ber the solemn back­yard burial and go­ing down­town on the el­e­vated to a Mar­ket Street shop near Sec­ond Street to buy a re­place­ment. An­other died when I was in my teens, and she bought a third.

There were ra­dio pro­grams for ca­naries in those days. One live pro­gram from Chicago on Sun­day af­ter­noons, called “Amer­i­can Ra­dio War­blers,” fea­tured 10 ca­naries singing while an or­gan played.

I would swear that there were daily ca­nary broad­casts, also. An in­ter­net search doesn’t re­veal any, and if Wikipedia never heard of it, I must be wrong, right, folks?

But I in­sist that in the ’30s, a bird food com­pany spon­sored sin­ga­long broad­casts for ca­naries. It con­sisted of many ca­naries singing while back­ground mu­sic played. Grand­mom’s sec­ond ca­nary, the most ac­com­plished of the three, sang along with the birds on the ra­dio — not only sang, but got ex­cited shortly be­fore the pro­gram started, couldn’t wait to join in his with his broth­ers on the ra­dio (only male ca­naries sing), and fol­lowed along with their war­bling.

The sci­en­tists who study ca­naries (ex­cept for a few who dis­agree) say that male ca­naries learn their songs from their fa­thers in the first five or so weeks of their lives and cre­ate a melody they think will best at­tract the lady ca­naries.

A lot of the re­search on ca­nary singing was done by the Max Planck Ge­sellschaft in Ger­many. I won­dered why an institute named for a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist was in­ter­ested in tweety birds.

It seems that sci­en­tists there study ge­net­ics and found that a gene des­ig­nated FOX2, which has a lot to do with hu­mans learn­ing and speak­ing lan­guage, is also found in song birds.

So, if some or­nitho­log­i­cal Dr. Franken­stein finds a way to cross a par­rot that learns words with a ca­nary that learns melodies, we might have a bird that can sing the tune and the lyrics.

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