Episode 201: The African Grey Parrot and More Mantises

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This week we'll learn about a fascinating parrot and some more weird praying mantises! Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions! Further watching: Nova Science Now: Irene Pepperberg and Alex Alex: Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot The Smartest Parrots in the World Further reading: Why Do Parrots Talk? Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran Alex and Irene Pepperberg (photo taken from the "Why do parrots talk?" article above): Two African grey parrots: The "mantis man" petroglyph: The conehead mantis is even weirder than "ordinary" mantis species: Where does Empusa fasciata begin and the flower end (photo by Mehmet Karaca)? The beautiful spiny flower mantis: The ghost mantis looks not like a ghost but a dead leaf: Show transcript: Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. This week we’re going to look at two completely unrelated animals, but both are really interesting. Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions! We’ll start with Page’s suggestion, the African gray parrot. We haven’t talked about very many parrots in previous episodes, even though parrots are awesome. The African gray parrot is from Africa, and it’s mostly gray, and it is a parrot. Specifically it’s from what’s called equatorial Africa, which means it lives in the middle of the continent nearest the equator, in rainforests. It has a wingspan of up to 20 inches, or 52 cm, and it has red tail feathers. The African gray parrot is a popular pet because it’s really good at learning how to talk. It doesn’t just imitate speech, it imitates various noises it hears too. It’s also one of the most intelligent parrots known. Some studies indicate it may have the same cognitive abilities as a five year old child, including the ability to do simple addition. It will also give its treats to other parrots it likes even if it has to go without a treat as a result, and it will share food with other parrots it doesn’t even know. Despite all the studies about the African grey in captivity, we don’t know much about it in the wild. Like other parrots, it’s a highly social bird. It mostly eats fruit, seeds, and nuts, but will also eat some insects, snails, flowers, and other plant parts. It mates for life and builds its nest in a tree cavity. Both parents help feed the babies. That’s basically all we know. It’s endangered in the wild due to habitat loss, hunting, and capture for sale as pets, so if you want to adopt an African grey parrot, make sure you buy from a reputable parrot breeder who doesn’t buy wild birds. For every wild parrot that’s sold as a pet, probably a dozen died after being taken from the wild. A good breeder will also only sell healthy birds, and will make sure you understand how to properly take care of a parrot. Since the African grey can live to be up to sixty years old, ideally it will be your buddy for basically the rest of your life, but it will require a lot of interaction and care to stay happy and healthy. One African grey parrot named Alex was famous for his ability to speak. Animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg bought Alex at a pet shop in 1977 when he was about one year old, not just because she thought parrots were neat and wanted a pet parrot, but because she wanted to study language ability in parrots. Pepperberg taught Alex to speak and to perform simple tasks to assess his cognitive abilities. Back then, scientists didn’t realize parrots and other birds were intelligent. They thought an animal needed a specific set of traits to display intelligence, such as a big brain and hands. You know, things that humans and apes have, but most animals don’t. Pepperberg’s studies of Alex and other parrots proved that intelligence isn’t limited to animals that are similar to us. Alex had a vocabulary of about 100 words, which is average for a parrot, but instead of just mimicking sounds,

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