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Who's that parrot in my cage?

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Q: If dogs and cats can see themselves in mirrors, why don't they respond as if they're seeing another animal? However, when parrots, who you say are so smart, see themselves they seem to think they're actually living with another parrot. Why is that?

S. H., Newton, Kan.

A: Dogs and cats do see images of themselves in mirrors. Young pups and kittens will sometimes act startled at these images, barking or posturing to the mirror as if there is another animal looking back at them. When they get close enough to sniff, they learn there's nothing there - except an image. In canines and felines, the nose overrules what their eyes tell them. What we don't know for sure is if our dogs and cats recognize that image as themselves. Birds are more visually attuned, and don't generally conceive that their eyes can ever trick them.

Intelligence is difficult to describe. No matter how long you work with a dog or a cat, few can ever learn to pick out a red wooden clothespin from an array of various colored plastic, metal and wooden clothespins, as researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg has taught African grey parrots to do. Does this mean parrots are smarter? For one thing, cats and dogs don't see color nearly as well as parrots. It's all about how you define smart. In truth, most experts do consider parrots to be overall brighter than dogs and cats. Scientists agree that chimpanzees are brighter than dogs, yet (according to one study) dogs excel over chimps at their ability to understand what we are attempting to communicate.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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