As I indicated in the comments to my last column, Elmo, my parrot, doesn't use words the way humans do. His listening comprehension is huge and grammatical, but his "speaking vocabulary" is only modestly more sophisticated than a cat's or a dog's. I'm not saying he couldn't learn to speak purposefully; we haven't tried to teach him to. I'm just saying he doesn't.
What I have noticed, though, is that his nonverbal communication is extensive, subtle, and very complex. It's not just about body postures and positions. He does a lot of very elaborate feather flicking and ruffling and repositioning that is clearly intended to convey information, most of which I don't understand. It's far, far more sophisticated than just fluffing oneself up or bristling like a cat does. It looks more like the way patterns change on cuttlefish. Paula and I both have a strong sense that Elmo is "saying" things that we don't understand.
I have a hypothesis why, and here is where it gets photographically interesting: Bird vision is very different from ours. Birds see in four frequency bands rather than three. The bands are more sharply defined than ours (so they can discriminate more distinct colors than we can), and one of the bands is in the near ultraviolet. As best as we can tell, birds process that information in ways similar to the way we do. For example, we confuse yellow with green plus red, because monochromatic yellow stimulates the long and medium wavelength cones the same way green plus red does. Birds have a second color, violet, where that should also occur: a proper mix of blue and ultraviolet should look the same to them as pure violet if they are visually interpreting color in an analogous way. Experiments show that, indeed, they can't tell the difference.
Consequently, birds don't look, to each other, the way they look to us. Budgies, for example, look to us to have dark blue cheek patches and pink feet. In the ultraviolet those are brilliant white (thank you, David Attenborough!), while the rest of the bird is very dark. In a few cases, researchers have UV-photographed wild species where they thought the male and females looked identical. In the ultraviolet they don't look anything alike; possibly all birds are sexually dimorphic, even if we can't see it.
His "body language" looks very similar to us, but how does it look to him?
So, back to Elmo. Elmo looks uniformly neutral in color, save for a red tail. The "sunscreen" powder on the face is near white, the beak is near black, and the feathers are various shades of medium gray with silvery fringes. I have a strong hunch that's not at all the way Elmo looks in four-band "parrotvision."
More significantly, I have an intuition that the subtle changes in brightness I see when Elmo flicks and ruffles his feathers produce substantial brightness and color changes in parrotvision. I think there's communication going on there that I can't even perceive.
I could test this hypothesis with the right equipment. The Fuji UVIR camera, one of the UV-transmitting lenses, and a set of UV blocking and transmitting filters would certainly let me see what Elmo sees in the UV, and might even let me do a false-color simulation of what he sees full-spectrum.
I don't have that equipment, and I can't afford it. I used to have close enough friends at Fuji that I'd feel comfortable asking them for the loan of that kind of gear without an obvious review being in the offing, but I don't any longer; they've moved on or retired.
So, anyone here have an idea how I might get my hands on the gear? Somebody who knows somebody, perhaps? I figure it can't hurt to ask; you folks are collectively far more resourceful than me.
It might produce some interesting science. It might even produce some interesting art. It might produce nothing of note. Results are never certain, in art or science. It would be fun to find out.
(Photos © 2009 by David Dyer-Bennet)