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Variations in an African Grey parrot’s speech patterns following ignored and denied requests

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Communicative competence is one measure of an individual’s ability to navigate conversations with social partners. The current study explored the possibility of basic communicative competence in a non-mammal speaker, a speech-using African Grey parrot. Spontaneous conversations between one Grey named Cosmo and her caregiver were recorded, from which three corpora (i.e., bodies of text) of Cosmo’s vocalizations were developed: (1) Baseline: Vocalizations containing no requests, (2) Ignored Requests: Vocalizations immediately following Cosmo’s caregiver ignoring Cosmo’s requests, and (3) Denied Requests: Vocalizations immediately following Cosmo’s caregiver denying Cosmo’s requests. The distributions of social (e.g., “I love you,” kiss sounds) and nonsocial (e.g., answering machine beeps, “That’s squirrel”) vocalizations, as well as speech and nonword vocalizations, were statistically different across the three corpora. Additionally, qualitative analysis of the datasets indicated Cosmo was persistent in repeating vocalizations when denied and ignored, and interrupted her caregiver more often when requests were denied compared to ignored. Neither repetition nor interruption occurred during the Baseline conversations. The data indicate that despite the outcome being the same (i.e., request was unmet), Cosmo treated an ignored request differently than a denied request, modifying her vocalizations in accord with the specific context. Such modification is evidence of basic communicative competence.

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We acknowledge the contributions of Marisol Macias, Dominic D. Byrd, and Allison Kaufman for their assistance with data analysis and manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Erin N. Colbert-White.

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Colbert-White, E.N., Hall, H.C. & Fragaszy, D.M. Variations in an African Grey parrot’s speech patterns following ignored and denied requests. Anim Cogn 19, 459–469 (2016).

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