Oregon Police Rush to Woman Screaming for Help, Find Melodramatic Parrot Instead

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A macaw parrot (not the one who cried “help”) looking out of its cage. Adrees Latif/Reuters

Police responded to a clear call for “help” late Tuesday that came, it turned out, from a parrot.  

A package deliverer heard what he believed to be the sounds of a woman screaming for help on his route Monday evening. The Oregonian reports that the man called his wife, who in turn called the police.

A police officer arrived on scene as the UPS driver waited outside the house where he heard the screams.

The officer found that the screamer was in fact a parrot named Diego, who was, by all appearances, doing just fine.

While there is absolutely no reason to believe this is a widespread phenomenon, this isn’t the first time a parrot crying “help” summoned the police. Last year, police in Germany responded to what sounded like a child in distress, only to find a parrot. Several years before that, in New Jersey, a bird that learned new registers and words from English- and Spanish-language television was also mistaken for a woman crying for help or an abandoned child.

Parrots, along with some other species of birds, are vocal learners. Rather than having a song inflexibly hardwired into their brains, parrots can adapt and pick up on other sounds and dialects. All vocal-learner birds have a part of their brain called a “song system,” what the Audubon Society describes as an “inner shell” of brain tissue that enables birds to adapt their song. In parrots, there is a unique outer layer of cells around this shell that gives them their heightened powers of mimicry.

But none of that answers the question of why some birds would evolve to adaptively learn birdsong rather than know it innately. The answer might have something to do with context. By learning songs on the fly, parrots can develop an understanding of how to use songs to communicate messages in different social contexts.

That, of course, can get confusing when parrots are given the input of human speech or, say, television. Parrots only pay attention to human speech in captivity because they apply the same method of learning to socialize by mimicry. And while they might have some context-based associations with the human phrases they learn, according to Scientific American, that’s more likely on the level of learning a word or phrase by habit as a response to simple cues like a person entering or leaving a room.

So it’s almost certain Diego the parrot didn't know what he was saying, nor was he plotting an elaborate ruse to lure a police officer into taking a photo with him.

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