Feathered prodigy: N'kisi leads the field
The finding of a parrot with an almost unparalleled power to communicate with people has brought scientists up short. The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour.
He invents his own words and phrases if he is confronted with novel ideas with which his existing repertoire cannot cope - just as a human
child would do.
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
Parrot's oratory stuns scientists
N'kisi's remarkable abilities
feature in the latest BBC Wildlife Magazine.
N'kisi is believed to be one of the most advanced users of human
language in the animal world.
About 100 words are needed for half of all reading in English, so if
N'kisi could read he would be able to cope witha wide range of
He uses words in context, with past, present and future tenses, and is
One N'kisi-ism was "flied" for "flew", and another "pretty smell
medicine" to describe the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, an
artist based in New York.
When he first met Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert,
after seeing her in a picture with apes, N'kisi said: "Got a chimp?"
School's in: He is a willing learner
He appears to fancy himself as a humourist. When another parrot hung
upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on
Dr Goodall says N'kisi's verbal fireworks are an "outstanding example
of interspecies communication".
In an experiment, the bird and his owner were put in separate rooms and
filmed as the artist opened random envelopes containing picture cards.
Analysis showed the parrot had used appropriate keywords three times
more often than would be likely by chance.
This was despite the researchers discounting responses like "What ya
doing on the phone?" when N'kisi saw a card of a man with a telephone,
and "Can I give you a hug?" with one of a couple embracing.
Professor Donald Broom, of the University of Cambridge's School of
Veterinary Medicine, said: "The more we look at the cognitive abilities
of animals, the more advanced they appear, and the biggest leap of all
has been with parrots."
Alison Hales, of the World Parrot Trust, told BBC News
Online: "N'kisi's amazing vocabulary and sense of humour should make
everyone who has a pet parrot consider whether they are meeting its
"They may not be able to ask directly, but parrots are long-lived, and
a bit of research now could mean an improved quality of life for