A parrot with a 950-word vocabulary, a sense of humour and alleged telepathic powers is forcing a rethink of the scope for animals and humans to communicate. The 6-year-old captive-bred African grey called N'kisi is one of the most advanced users of human language in the animal world. The bird uses words in context, with past, present and future verb tenses. And, like small children, it resorts to creativity to describe new ideas - for instance saying "flied" for flew and inventing the phrase "pretty smell medicine" to indicate the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, a New York-based artist. He can also associate photographs with the real person or object - when he first met primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, after seeing her in a picture with apes, his greeting was: "Got a chimp?" He also displays dry humour. When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."
Dr Goodall judges N'kisi's eagerness to learn how to converse with his owner as an "outstanding example of interspecies communication," but new evidence suggests the parrot's skills may not stop with the verbal. In an experiment witnessed on videotape by BBC Wildlife Magazine's contributor Eleanor O'Hanlon, N'kisi and his owner were put in separate rooms and filmed as the artist opened random envelopes containing picture cards. On analysis, the parrot had used appropriate keywords three times more often than might result by chance, even though the researchers discounted responses such as "What ya doing on the phone?" when a card was drawn showing a man with a telephone and "Can I give you a hug?" after a card of a couple embracing.
The findings, reported in February's edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine, are controversial but O'Hanlon points out that many studies are under way into communications between species and are prompting fresh thinking on animal intelligence. 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."