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From the beak of a macaw

This bird doesn't just talk; she communicates, her owner says. And he's devoted his life to proving it to the world.

Published May 12, 2003

I'm not going to meet the wonder bird, at least not right away.

"If Arielle sees you, she won't talk," her owner of 10 years, Mike Dalton, explains.

And that is why I'm here. Dalton says Arielle knows some 3,000 words and phrases, thousands more than the bird in the Guiness Book of World Records. But more than that, he says, Arielle knows what they mean and uses them in proper context.

Dalton thinks he may have stumbled onto a breakthrough in the study of animal communication. Documenting it all in a series of books has become Dalton's life focus for nearly three years.

But does Arielle really talk? I'm here to find out.

We literally run through the kitchen lest Arielle catch a glimpse of the interloper. We duck into a darkened guest bedroom, where high-tech audio equipment sits in the corner.

On the other side of wide blinds and sliding glass doors sits Arielle, a blue and gold macaw who looks to have been painted by an artist.

Dalton, 61, hands me a clipboard with a blank sheet of paper.

It's an experiment. He's curious to see what this reporter can make out during one of Arielle's daily "talking sessions."

Dalton hands me a set of headphones and motions toward an empty chair at the foot of the bed. He takes his preferred spot, sitting cross-legged on the floor by the glass doors. Through the headphones, the microphone hidden next to Arielle's perch picks up the rumble of passing trucks and the drone of planes overhead.

Dalton waits patiently as Arielle dines on a lunch of mixed vegetables, pasta with caraway seeds and lemon pepper seasoning and a little piece of chicken.

The talking sessions usually start a few minutes later. We wait. Arielle does a bit of gymnastics on her makeshift playground. In silence.

Then, very definitely, the talking session begins. Dalton hits "record" on the tape player.

He picks up his notebook and begins to scribble furiously, checking his watch to record times.

What on earth he is writing? The parrot seems to me to be making random squawks. I glance nervously at a bin stacked with a pile of notebooks, two years worth of notes from daily talking sessions.

I close my eyes, straining to make out some words, anything. But my page is mostly blank.

Dalton continues to transcribe nonstop. At one point, he let's out a hearty laugh. Arielle, it seems, has cracked a joke.

The chirping goes on for some 20 minutes. And then, it ends. Dalton clicks "stop" on the tape player.

I sheepishly show my pad. Not much there. A couple "Polly want a cracker" and "pretty bird." I also thought I heard Arielle barking like a dog.

It's OK, Dalton says. Not many people can pick up Arielle's speech. It's like how parents can understand their toddler's speech when others cannot.

Dalton can sense my skepticism. He rewinds the tape and hits play. He quickly finds his place in his notes and allows me to follow along. Darned if it doesn't sound now like what he's written, mostly. It's like a police surveillance tape with the translation.

Here's some of what Arielle had to say:

"Water. Back. Come up. I love you. Alright.

You want to play? Quiet. Happy (after she's eaten)."

And this mocking exchange:

"Wow. You can talk?"

"Polly want a cracker." She laughs.

And the joke earlier? Arielle at the time was headed for the fruit tray, which he sometimes warns is too hot.

"Be careful," she said, apparently mocking those warnings.

And I was right about the barking.

"Woof, woof. Good dog. Woof."

Consider this, Dalton says. He tells her, "Arielle's cute. You're cute." But Arielle says, "I'm cute."

"She knows pronoun substitution," he says.

Her communication is far more advanced than any scientist has given birds credit for, he says. Arielle has much to teach the world.

If he could only get people to take his research seriously.

Around the turn of the century, a horse called Clever Hans challenged the prevailing attitude about animal intelligence. Clever Hans amazed crowds when he tapped his hoof to answer simple math questions Four plus two? He'd tap six times.

But Clever Hans was exposed. A scientist discovered his math skills evaporated when he wore blinders, or if his owner did not know the answer to the question. Turns out, the owner was giving unintentional facial cues when Clever Hans got to the correct answer.

It's a story that animal behaviorists often retell to debunk claims made by folks who try to read too much into animal communication.

Even those who conduct animal behavior studies in laboratories with strict controls are viewed with skepticism. And here is Dalton, a former Clearwater audio store owner with a physics degree, but no formal animal behavior schooling, conducting his research in his home.

Most of Dalton's e-mails to scientists go unanswered. His first approach to a book agent was rebuffed. Even his wife, Patricia, a kindergarten teacher, says she does a lot of eye rolling.

But Dalton continues undaunted. He figures he's read enough books on animal communication to qualify for a Ph.D. He attends seminars. And he notes that many great discoveries were made by accident, by so-called amateurs.

The snubbing may also be because they don't want competition, he says.

"Scientists don't respect animals," he says. "They don't treat them like equals. I talk to Arielle like she's another person."

Particularly vexing to Dalton is the lack of acknowledgement from the world's leading researcher on parrot communication, Irene Pepperberg, who also has ignored his letters. More often than not, Pepperberg's parrot, Alex, can correctly identify an array of objects. He identifies the number and color of blocks. Researchers are trying to teach Alex to read.

Her work suggests there is much yet to learn about animal communication, said Donald Griffin, author of Animal Minds.

"I think there's no doubt parrots use some of their words purposefully," said Griffin, who spent more than three decades researching animal cognition.

But he has yet to see convincing evidence that birds can string words together correctly. It will be hard, he said, for Dalton to convince scientists that his experiments meet scientific muster.

Still, he said, "I don't think it has been studied as closely as it should be."

Susan Farlow, a bird behavior consultant in the Boston area who has worked with Alex, admires Dalton's enthusiasm and intensity in exploring what remains a controversial subject.

She is convinced that there's more going on in birds' heads than they are credited with. The issue should be treated with respect, she said.

"It's an interesting and provocative thing he (Dalton) is doing," Farlow said. "If his data is strong enough to actually be applied to scientific protocol, then certainly what he's doing is serving to further the discussion."

A few years ago, Dalton found his life at a crossroads.

It had been years since he closed the audio business he operated in Clearwater for 22 years. Friends warned that once you're a boss, you can never work for anyone else. They were right.

Dalton said he was puttering around, wondering what he might do for the rest of his life.

"I didn't want to do something trivial," he said. "I wanted to do something that would give new direction to my life."

He had long thought Arielle had remarkable skills. He decided to pour his life, every ounce of it, into telling Arielle's story.

"I'm a very directed kind of person," Dalton said. "When I set my mind to something, I do it."

His wife agrees: "Whatever he does, he does wholeheartedly. He's been that way all his life."

In the beginning, she said, it was very difficult for her to accept her husband's new consuming passion.

"She thought I was crazy," he said.

But she is beginning to think he may be on to something. The other day, she said, they were doing animal studies in her kindergarten class when the topic of parrots came up.

"I heard myself telling the class, "They say they just repeat, but our parrot actually does tell us things and has learned things about how to speak.' I guess I'm becoming convinced," she said.

At the suggestion of an old professor, Dalton began recording Arielle's speech. He now has more than 150 hours worth. He hopes those will go a long way toward silencing doubters.

Dalton takes Arielle for daily walks through the neighborhood. She rides on his shoulder. He talks to her often in a falsetto voice, which is easier for her to duplicate.

"Noisy machine," he says about a lawn mower across the street. "No hurt."

It was on one of his early walks with Arielle that Dalton got a inkling that he had a remarkable bird. He was taking Arielle to a stream as part of his lesson on the word "water." Crossing a patch of sidewalk puddled with water from a sprinkler, Arielle lowered her head nervously and said "wet."

"That blew me away," he said. "If the bird can transfer meanings to new situations, we now have communication."

Arielle can communicate thoughts and emotions, he said. She even named him. She calls Dalton "Abba." It means "father" in Hebrew.

"I don't claim to be Dr. Doolittle," Dalton said. "But I have a bird that can communicate. Either she's gifted or we've stumbled on to something."

Dalton said he had determined that there are four levels to bird communication. The first is simply repeating words they are taught. The second level is being able to use those words in proper context.

He plans to write about all of these levels in a series of books, he says, maybe as many as five.

"I think if people will read it and take it seriously, I think I can make a serious contribution to our understanding of birds," he said.

"I'm beginning to suspect there is a fifth level of communication," Dalton offers enticingly. "I had never dreamed this was possible."

What is it?

"Actual conversation."

[Last modified May 12, 2003, 04:56:07]

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