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Tuesday, 01 September 2009


There is so much we don't know about animals, birds in particular. See: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/joshua_klein_on_the_intelligence_of_crows.html

Our ignorance is surpassed only by our arrogance.

Who cares about off-topic when it's that much fun?

Thanks, many thanks, for my first chuckle of the week and a sweet story to boot. Long live Elmo, and may he long not bite you!

So Elmo is from the same family of creatures as Irene Pepperburg's Alex (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_%28parrot%29 ), who died two years ago after a 30 year careful study of his emotional and verbal range. Can you discuss concepts like "bigger" and counting with him?


People and their pets are exponentially more insane than photographers and their cameras.

Ctein, I assume you must've seen the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill; if you haven't, I encourage you to.

PS: Ctein + off-topic = thumbs-up.

I still miss my Grey. He was part of the family for almost 20 years. Then one day he was sick and the next day dead. Probably he had been ailing for a while, but didn't show it (not atypical for birds, unfortunately.)

For a while, my wife had her home office in the same room with him. He picked up all sorts of interesting "play lists" from that!

lol!!!!! Its clear to me that Elmo let you off probation by dishing a little inside info… keep us posted from time to time on life with Elmo

So Ctein, when are you going to start Elmo on learning a bit of basic physics? After a while he could be loaned to Batavia and help them locate that darn Higgs.

What a delightful story. Here's to a long life for Elmo--bite-free, of course!

I had a friend with a Grey several years ago. It did pick up several vocalizations not in its own best interest, such as "here, here, kitty kitty."

Dear Robert,

As I mentioned, I had a tool-making budgie. Nothing surprises me any longer. If the ants I am currently battling were to suddenly start making little cable-strung suspension bridges, complete with tollbooths, I would just shrug and say, "Oh, OK."


Dear Spencer,

I do understand and sympathize. We had Tinker for over 20 years, and my last cat, Pentax, lived for over 18. And I haven't wanted another one since. I still miss her. She was the perfect photographer's cat. She would carefully AVOID sitting or walking on paper, 'cause she knew many papers (i.e., photographs) were important to me.


Dear Paddy,

And parrot owners are crazier than most. It's not clear who is learning from whom.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Scott,

Short answer is "no." Long answer it is that it's complicated.

Elmo has a huge and grammatically complex listening vocabulary. I can speak to him in large, complicated sentences, and he will respond accordingly. In fact, he responds better if I explain things to him than if I give him a short perfunctory orders. For example, "Elmo, go back in the cage" almost never elicits the desired behavior and may even get me mildly nipped if I put him back. "Elmo, would you please go back in the cage?"works much better. He understands that "please" is an emphasis word that indicates I would really like him to do something. (He also understands "thank you," as a way of indicating pleasure with the outcome.") If I say something like, "Elmo, I need to go out for a while, so please go back in the cage, and I'll let you out again soon" he is most likely to respond favorably; often he will climb back inside the cage of his own volition.

His listening vocabulary is easily dozens of significant words; it might be over 100. But he doesn't use any of those words purposefully, even though he groups them in associative ways. For example, he recently trotted out a whole new set of utterances that he learned from us (the first major block that he has), that included "water, fresh water, corn, tortilla, chip, corn chip, want some freshwater?, would you like a chip?, would you like a corn chip?, mmm good, and oooh good."

There's a common theme that is obvious and not coincidental. And on the listening side, he knows many, many specific words for foods. But he does not speak food words with the same purpose. For example, when he says "would you like a corn chip," he almost never actually wants a corn chip; I've offered it and he usually rejects it. When I am eating some food that he wants, he never uses the word for that food, even if he knows it when he hears it. He always says, "Hello, Elmo," which is what he uses for "Please."

By the way, a double cluck is his version of "thank you" (a closer translation is "I am pleased") and he does use it appropriately. Like a small child, he may not see any social reason for saying please and thank you, but he understands that using them gets him the results he wants a lot more often.

So there's almost a total disconnect between what he understands and what he says. That doesn't mean he couldn't be trained to speak purposefully, ala Alex, but we haven't attempted to do so.

He is verbally playful: he likes to play counting games, and he likes to play "peek a boo, I see you." But it's purely a case of him making a certain noise and eliciting a certain set of reactions from us. He doesn't show any evidence of conceptual understanding.

He definitely understands "more" and "bigger" as concepts, though.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

More off-topic, please!

I had a wonderful, crazy Mexican Double Yellowhead parrot for a number of years before he passed away. I've said since then if I ever get another parrot it will be an African Gray. Parrots are fantastic pets and friends if they are raised and cared for properly.

All the best to you and Paula and Elmo.

It just so happens that there was a really wonderful segment today on the NPR program "Fresh Air" about Alex the amazing Grey parrot.

In one of those weird coincidences I listened to this segment in the car and then walked in the house and found Ctein's post. Must be positive Psittacine karma!!

Great post, Ctein! I have parrots now and have had them for years. The only one of them that i was really close to was killed by an opossum and it broke my heart. can't seem to get that worked up about them now. But your post was wonderful..i read every word. I am so happy for Elmo that he has found such a good home. Those bites...grr...man do i have stories..*shudder*..enjoy him, he sounds like s super friend.

Our African Grey has learned how to sight cats, and just yell CAT (Well, in dutch that is.) whenever he sees one. Not that it is neccesary, but interesting nonetheless. He has a heck of a good sight! Most of the times I'm staring out of the window and it takes me a good five minutes to locate said cat, often way in the back of the garden...

A friends Grey has in his vocabulary, pager beep and smoke alarm low battery beep.

Ctein, thanks for the piece. It was really funny!

re: the Pic - What a pretty boy!

(the bird, Ctein, the bird)

I have two grays. An 8 year old male, and a 4 year old female.

Your enjoyment of a pet is directly linked to their innate intelligence. The more intelligent, the more they can express themselves and demonstrate their feelings. Gray's are super intelligent.

And they're a great feature to have in the studio, put one in the scene and it makes for a great grey reference card.. ;o)

But what camera / lens combo does he use?

I've met Elmo, and can attest what he really wants is an iPhone.

Fazal knows of whence he spake (thank you, Tommy Smothers). Bill Atkinson came by the house the day the iPhone came out, and of course he had to show his new toy. Elmo was fascinated. It was shiny, it was chrome, it was black.

Holding it safely out of reach, Bill started to demonstrate the numerous system sounds and alerts it could produce. Elmo was now entranced. Such wonderful noises! He wanted it sooooooooo badly! It was clearly the finest thing that had ever been devised by god or mortal, and Elmo desperately needed one.

No, we didn't get him a phone. Parrot owners may be insane but they're not stupid. He would just use it to call 1-900 parrot chat lines and to order pizza delivery and charge everything to my credit card.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Patrick,

I'm sorry, but that question is OT for OT [vvvvvvbg].


Dear John, Hudson, Matt, et al.,

At least half, probably the majority of Elmo's vocalizations are sound effects rather than human speech. Some of them are organic: he does a killer seagull; very accurate yawns, snores, and sneezes; and an annoyingly precise belch. He will also whistle the entire Andy Griffith theme, including the whistled chord that leads the bridge.

Others are inorganic: the sound of water dripping and being poured, and a startlingly good rendition of a fork tapping on a wine goblet, which is perfect down to the way the harmonics trail off differentially and slightly shift the tone as the ring dies out.

He also imitates lots of mechanical devices, fortunately none of them (yet!) are things that we own. He can do a kitchen timer and a microwave, both signaling that it's done and the sound pattern of buttons being pushed to program it.

Telephones, in any aspect, are his most favorite things. He can imitate many different telephone rings with precision.

For many months, we were very puzzled by a complex and varying series of noises he made that sounded like eerie ghostly cries and shrieks-- oooooeeeeeeoooooowiwowiwiiooooooooeeeeeiiiii. Given that he can rotate his head 180° and vomit at will, we just attributed it to Possessed Parrot.

Finally, one day, we got the whole routine:

[ring] [ring] [ring]





The mystery sound was that of an answering machine tape being fast-forwarded!

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Telephones, in any aspect, are his most favorite things. He can imitate many different telephone rings with precision.

Ok Ctein, that's it, I really want an Elmo ringtone now! Can you maybe offer a library for download? :-D

Ctein, thank you for your most entertaining parrot stories. I got a Blue Fronted Amazon that's 26-27, had him for 15 years now- and got a rescued Grey born in the wild in Africa 28years ago- apparently snatched from the nest and for the last several years lived in someone's basement with a blanket on top of his cage. While he is half naked and dark plumage which shouldn't be, he is the most entertaining feathery thing in the world, especially when he says nigh night sweetheart- at bedtime of course. Second to that is Hi Honey bunchhhhhh. He love saying the sound shhhh!
Love him to pieces, and while he continues his plucking habit, he is a joy to be around.


Elmo sounds like a great companion! I always wanted a gray, but they are so expensive! ah well, maybe one day..

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