Cosmo Talks

In print

In print

Excerpted from
Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot, by Betty Jean Craige.
Santa Fe: Sherman Asher Publishing (, 2010

“Telephone for bird!” was Cosmo’s first joke. Before she could talk, when the phone would ring, I would shout “Telephone!” for her benefit and then pick up the receiver. After she found out that I was B’Jean, she would joyfully announce “Telephone for B’Jean” at the top of her little lungs when the phone would ring or when she’d mimic the phone’s ring—”Rrrring!” To my surprise one day, after sounding the rrrring from atop her cage in my bedroom, she shouted, “Telephone for bird!” I broke up laughing. Then she imitated me: “Hahahahaha!” And I couldn’t stop laughing. There we were, a bird and a human, laughing hilariously together! What a moment. You can imagine how often thereafter she crowed “Telephone for bird! Hahahahahaha!”

If nobody is listening to her, she’ll say quietly, “Telephone for bird. Hehehehe.”

I read in Bird Talk magazine that all kinds of large parrots laugh, or at least make the sound of laughter on appropriate occasions. Cosmo will say things to amuse herself and laugh at her own cleverness, even when she’s not talking to me. From my perspective, she has a great sense of humor, or at least a sense of fun, if that is different from humor. But I can’t prove it. She may just have learned that utterances of a certain type provoke laughter in people. And since she is a social animal—with a desire to be with her flock—she says things to make people laugh and stay near her.

Cosmo’s humor depends on an intuition of the absurd, such as the substitution of “bird” for “Betty Jean” in “Telephone for bird!” To elicit laughter, Cosmo makes all kinds of substitutions that strike her as funny—all centered upon her. For example, in place of “Doggies wanna go for a walk,” she’ll say “Cosmo wanna go for a walk! Hehehe.” In place of “Betty Jean has clothes,” she’ll say “Betty Jean has feathers! Hehehe.” In place of “Betty Jean gonna go to work,” she’ll say “Cosmo gonna go to work! Hehehe.” And in place of “Telephone for Betty Jean,” she’ll say “Telephone for good girl!” or “Telephone for me!” I think she enjoys imagining herself as me, a human who wears clothes, goes to work, and talks on the phone.

For Cosmo, the telephone is an infinite source for fun. Here is a sample of the telephone games that make us both laugh:

COSMO: “Rrrring…………”
COSMO: “You have reached 9354362. Thank you. Good-bye. Beep. Hehe.

COSMO: “Rrrring…………”
COSMO: “You have reached 9354… Cosmo is a good birdy! Hahahahahaha!”

COSMO: “Rrrring…………”
COSMO: “You have reached Betty Jean! Hehe.”

COSMO: “Rrrring…………”
COSMO: “You have reached Cosmo! Hahahahaha!”

COSMO: “Rrrring…………”
COSMO: “You have reached me! Hahahaha!”

COSMO: “Rrrring rrrring. Telephone! Telephone for Betty Jean. Hello (in a soft voice). How are you? Fine, thank you. Okay. Good-bye. Beep. Hehehehe.”

COSMO: “Rrrring…………”
[I come out of the shower dripping wet, head towards the phone, and suddenly get suspicious.]

BJC: “Is that Cosmo?”

COSMO: “That’s Cosmo!” Hahahaha!
BJC: “Hahahahaha!”
COSMO: “Hahahaha!”

I even tested Cosmo’s timing with regard to my shower. One morning I turned on the shower, waited five seconds, and heard “Rrrring.” I went into the bedroom to confront Cosmo, who was perched on top of her cage with beak shut. I returned to the bathroom and again turned on the shower. Five seconds later: “Rrrring!” We did this three times. What fun.

I have also mistaken a real phone call for her rrrring, stayed in the shower, and missed the call.

I was flabbergasted to hear Cosmo refer to herself as “me.” She must have generalized from “Come with me” or “Give me a kiss.”

Cosmo has gotten her telephone manners from the answering machine. That’s where she got my phone number, the phrase “you have reached,” and the final beep. When she mimics my talking on the phone she speaks softly and with my rhythms of speech. When she pretends to be the person leaving the message, she speaks in a low voice and says something unintelligible.

When I pick up the phone to make a call, Cosmo will mimic the ping of the numbers being dialed—”Ping ping ping ping ping ping ping. Then she will say softly, “Hello, Joan.” I call my neighbor Joan, or she calls me, every Sunday to establish that we’re walking our dogs that morning. Cosmo has listened so carefully that she can repeat my side of the conversation in its entirety:

COSMO (softly): “Hello, Joan. How are you? Fine, thank you. Wanna go for a walk? Okay. Thank you. Good-bye. Beep. Hehe.

The hehe is Cosmo’s chuckle to herself.

I miss Cosmo, Mary, and Kaylee when I’m out of town, and they miss me, I know. As every dog-owner can tell you, a dog will shower you with sloppy kisses when you return to her after having been gone for a length of time. Mary and Kaylee will jump up and down and run circles around me. Cosmo will invite me to kiss her feathers: “Betty Jean wanna kiss feathers?” I do.

Now why would a rational, or mostly rational, adult human want to kiss her bird’s feathers? That’s not hard for me to answer, even forgetting about how nice they smell. I love Cosmo. That is, I want to touch her, comfort her, protect her, entertain her, hold her near me, let her know I care for her, and keep her caring for me. At dawn her joyful responses to the awakening birds in the woods stir me to consciousness, and soon I hear her calling me: “Cosmo wanna go up!” My heart flutters as I remember that that little parrot is awaiting eagerly my entrance into her room. When I let Cosmo out of her cage, I kiss her beak and then her feathers. She kisses me back.

I am convinced that she is feeling pleasure when she does it.

So how arrogant must we humans be to assert that we are distinct from non-humans in the possession of “consciousness”? I believe that almost everybody on this planet who walks, runs, climbs, flies, or swims has some sort of mental life, though we humans are the only species capable of writing poetry, composing symphonies, discussing the origin of species, determining the composition of stars, and inventing weapons of mass destruction.

I wonder whether our society’s intellectual struggle to define our uniqueness in the animal kingdom is a result of the shock that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection gave to Western civilization in 1859. Before the publication of the Origin of Species, most people did not question the religious notion of the human soul, “a person’s spiritual as opposed to corporeal nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. We believed that humans had souls, and that dogs and birds and chimps and dolphins did not, that the soul was separate from the body, that it was connected to God, and that it had everlasting life. We humans were confident that we were unique, because we knew that God had created us in his own image. We could be righteous conquerors of the land-community because the Bible prescribed our dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, the cattle, and every creeping thing that crept upon the earth. But in 1859, Darwin’s claim that we humans had evolved like all other organisms according to natural laws made thoughtful readers ask whether we humans really had souls. In a nature characterized by continuous change, what was a soul anyway?

Now we talk about “consciousness,” which seems to me a post-Darwinian replacement for “soul.” Philosophers discuss whether animals have consciousness, or more specifically, self-consciousness.

In the last few decades researchers in the field of animal cognition have dramatically expanded our knowledge of the mental abilities of non-human animals, overturning longstanding definitions for what is uniquely human. We can no longer say that what marks us as human is tool use, as we once did, because researchers have observed monkeys and crows fashioning tools to get food. Nor can we say it’s speech, since researchers have heard whales communicating with members of their own pod in songs that employ grammar. Nor can we say it’s self-awareness, since researchers have shown that elephants recognize themselves in a mirror. I was not surprised to find out about the elephants’ self-awareness, for Cosmo recognizes herself in the mirror.

We have learned that animals are capable of deceiving us intentionally, which, as Virginia Morell writes in National Geographic‘s March 2008 issue on animal minds, requires the ability “to attribute intentions to the other person and predict that person’s behavior.” So those animals must spend some time figuring out us humans. Cosmo must spend a lot of time thinking about me, for she is quite deceptive when she wants to be. For instance, she says, “Cosmo wanna shower,” and walks down the hall to the laundry room. Out of my sight, she quietly makes sawdust of the baseboard. As soon as she hears me approach the laundry room calling “Cosmo, where are you?” she scurries to the dogs’ water dish and announces “Shower for Cosmo!” I leave, and I hear her scurry back to the baseboard she’s been working on. Cosmo knows that she is doing something she’s not supposed to do, and she doesn’t want me to see her doing it.

And she is capable of manipulating me to fulfill her wishes. One early morning at breakfast time, while perched on top of the cage in my bedroom, Cosmo said, “Cosmo wanna go to kitchen!” Then she gave me a pretend-bite when I reached up to take her on my hand. I immediately said “Bad bird!” and walked away down the hall. She called out, “I love you!” I returned to give her a ride to the kitchen.

We commonly understand “consciousness” as what humans have that animals don’t. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the first definition of consciousness: “Internal knowledge or conviction, esp. of one’s own guilt, innocence, deficiencies, etc.” According to that definition, Cosmo doesn’t have consciousness, because she shows no awareness of her own deficiencies. None whatsoever. But she does mutter after giving me a hard bite, “Cosmo bad bird. Go back in cage,” which is what I’ve said to her on occasion, though in an elevated tone of voice. Cosmo has an idea of what is good behavior and bad behavior, at least in her house.

What’s the point of proving that Cosmo—or any other animal, for that matter –doesn’t have consciousness? It’s as pointless to me as proving that Cosmo doesn’t have a soul. It’s finally a matter of semantics.

I prefer to talk of selves. It’s more democratic, since everyone’s got one. And without the divine distinction between those beings with souls and those without, or the secular distinction between those with consciousness and those without, we all become—theoretically—plain members and citizens of the land-community.


Conversations with Cosmo, now available at Sherman Asher Publishing
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Conversations with Cosmo: At Home with an African Grey Parrot

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