While reading about animal communication for Becoming A Tiger I ran across a long article called “Verbal Behavior and the Mynah Bird.” (1967.) Experimental psychologists Joseph Grosslight and Wesley Zaynor had a theory that babies talk earlier if you pick them up when they cry. They speculated that by thus rewarding babies, you create a “noisy organism.” The noisy baby learns to attach meaning to noises later – but sooner than a quiet baby.
They couldn't experiment with babies. They went with talking birds. Mynahs – great choice! (Gracula species.) Easy to buy (then), easy to feed, can't bite your finger off, cheap. Definitely noisy organisms. They started the Mynah Bird Project. They scheduled a report called “Verbal Behavior and the Mynah Bird and Implications for Man.”
The paper makes it clear that they understood that babies eventually learn language and mynahs don't. They say it several ways so no one thinks they're stupid or anthropomorphic. My favorite way they say it: “there is a complete absence of zoosemiotic considerations.” We get it, guys. You're not zoosemiotes.
(Zoosemiotics seems to be the study of signs or symbols in animal communication. You know, meaning. Can't have that.)
In the 1960s operant conditioning was new. It seemed as if, using this powerful system of rewards and punishments – you could get any animal to do anything. You could teach a rat to push a lever, a pigeon to peck when it saw the word “PECK,” a chicken to dance. (Okay, teach a chicken to “dance.” These are academics. It's a chicken. How well did you expect it to dance?)
Grosslight and Zaynor would use operant conditioning to create a bird equivalent of noisy babies. They viewed a mynah saying “Hello!” as “motor behavior not wholly unlike the classical operant bar-press of the rat in a Skinner box.” But, they reported in the plaintive 1967, “Verbal Behavior and the Mynah Bird,” that they had taken “and Implications for Man” out of the title due to “adversity.”What adversity? Uncooperative mynahs. The researchers expected great results by putting each mynah in a sound-proof chamber and playing a recorded phrase which the bird would get food rewards for repeating. Isolation in sound-proof chamber = no chance of hearing other noises. Recording = identical stimulus each time. Rewards for repeating = according to operant conditioning principles, rewarding behavior increases the frequency of the behavior. Voila! Superior talking birds!
But instead of repeating the phrase, the mynah would stay mute, beak shut. Finally the researchers would give up and put the bird back in the aviary – and then the mynah would say it. Or the bird in the chamber would say the phrase once and never again.
The researchers were also bewildered by the daily “jungle hour,” when mynahs vocalized without food rewards. They screeched, cackled, hooted, whistled, clicked, and hollered—why?
Their failure to produce talkers led Grosslight and Zaynor to confess “we do not know the motivational or controlling stimuli for the emission of vocal or verbal behavior in the mynah.” They could not answer the question, “why does the mynah bother to talk at all?” (Some scientists complain researchers don't publish negative results often enough. Maybe they're afraid people like me would mock them. At least I didn't call them zoosemiotes.)
This doesn't mean operant conditioning doesn't work. It means the researchers didn't understand mynahs. It didn't occur to them that being trapped in a soundproof chamber hearing repetitive tapes is already punishment for a mynah. They assumed that food is the only reward an animal cares for.
Nowhere do Grosslight and Zaynor say a harsh word about mynahs. They never blame the birds for the failure of their experimental vision. Which would be easy, because mynahs can be jerks.
I knew a pet store mynah who spoke dozens of phrases, which were scrawled on a card on the front of his cage. New customers would try the top few phrases on the card. “Hi there!” they would read, “I’m a pretty bird!” The mynah would put its head on one side and stare out of one eye. “Hello! I’m a pretty bird! How are you?” the visitors would try. The mynah would stare out of the other eye. “Hello! Pretty bird! What’s your name?”
As they turned away, the mynah would sneer, “You're stupid!”
He rolled the r – 'Yerrrrrr stupid!”-- in a way that suggested he had once lived around a ten-year-old boy.
So one of Grosslight and Zaynor's few successes makes sense. With food rewards they could increase the frequency with which the mynah Charlie said “I talk!” They could decrease the frequency with which Charlie said, “Ah shut up!” But they could not decrease it to zero.
It's enough to make you zoosemiotic.