My Column in The Hindu
Alex: Great conversationalist.
A good yap: Mishka, the Siberian Husky
NOC: Ghost buster
Meet Mishka who says “I’m hungry”, NOC who asks you to “get out” and a few others…
“Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” Captain Flint, Long John Silver’s talking parrot used to shout, in R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Some birds are experts in mimicking human speech like parrots, hill mynahs, starlings, lyrebirds, mockingbirds and even some members of the crow family.
If you hear camera shutters behind you in a garden in Australia and stop casually to look your best, it might just be a beautiful lyrebird mimicking the sound.
The Greek physician Ctesias, in the fifth century, talks about Batticus. It is one of the earliest references to a talking bird. Talking animals are mimics. They talk without understanding. But isn’t it true for us as well?
We spoke about a few of the talking animals who have caught our imagination in the first part of this article. Here are a few more:
The Siberian Huskies maybe have gauged our fascination with our own speech. Some of them use long warbling and whining sounds instead of barking. Mishka, the husky, has taken it to another level and can go on to say, “Hello” or “I’m hungry.”
There was no one around. But someone was having a conversation. In1984, in NOC’s tank at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego was an elusive ghost. Then, a diver in the tank was told to get ‘out’! It was NOC, the beluga whale making human like sounds, a first in cetaceans. The talking whale would inflate his nasal cavities to make the sounds. Was this whale, captured from the wild, trying to make a bond with the humans? Whatever the reason, he gave up the mimicking in the late 1980s.
Animals don’t understand words, they only mimic. Not always true. Alex, one of the most loved talking parrots, was an exception. The pet of the cognitive scientist Irene Pepperberg, this African Grey Parrot is supposed to have had the intelligence of a four-year-old human. He was the subject of a major scientific study for more than 30 years. The parrot could say more than 100 English words, could identify shapes, objects, numbers and sizes and say “Nuh” (none) if there was no difference in the objects. His last words to his dear trainer before he died were, “You be good”.
Einstein, the parrot, is an internet sensation who mimics and understands too. People go nuts seeing her mimicking the voices of different animals and dancing and laughing. The owners of Blackie, the talking cat, had to fight a court case and bring up issues of a ‘cat’s freedom of speech’!
Okay, so do you know who is the best mimic of all animals and can imitate countless different sounds? Why, us, of course.
Have you ever asked a child, “What does a dog say?”
“What does the cow say?”
The writer is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur