Can Parrots Converse? Polly Says That’s the Wrong Question.

Half a century ago, one of the hottest questions in science was whether humans could teach animals to talk. Scientists tried using sign language to converse with apes and trained parrots to deploy growing English vocabularies.

The work quickly attracted media attention — and controversy. The research lacked rigor, critics argued, and what seemed like animal communication could simply have been wishful thinking, with researchers unconsciously cuing their animals to respond in certain ways.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the research fell out of favor. “The whole field completely disintegrated,”said Irene Pepperberg, a comparative cognition researcher at Boston University, who became known for her work with an African gray parrot named Alex.

Today, advances in technology and a growing appreciation for the sophistication of animal minds have renewed interest in finding ways to bridge the species divide.Pet owners are teaching their dogs to press “talking buttons” and zoos are training their apes to use touch screens.

In a cautious

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