Ever heard of a family pet getting up behind the witness stand in a murder trial? Neither have I. But this idea might not seem so crazy for those who have heard about the African gray parrot Bud, a key witness to the fatal shooting of his owner, Martin Duram.
The notoriously filthy-mouthed bird was recorded several weeks after the shooting, repeating a chilling phrase: “Don’t f—ing shoot!” The victim’s parents are convinced that the bird watched the murder of their son and is now replaying Duram’s final words out loud.
In the video footage, the pet parrot seems to be mimicking an intense argument between the victim and his wife, suggesting that Mrs. Duram herself may be a suspect in the murder. The question is whether or not this chatty bird’s “testimony” can be used as evidence to start pointing fingers. We know that these mimicking feathered friends are pretty smart, but can they really be reliable murder witnesses?
African grays have the reputation for being one of the most intelligent bird species out there. Not only can they perfectly mimic everything that comes out of their owners’ mouths, but they also have incredibly well-developed memories and the ability to distinguish between different voices. The most famous African gray parrot, Alex, was the first of these clever creatures to have its cognitive abilities thoroughly studied. The research done by Alex’s owner, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, revealed the parrot’s ability to describe shapes, objects and colors, do basic math problems and even understand concepts like size and sameness.
Even though these awesome winged pets have proved their smarts to us, can we really start relying on their speech capabilities to solve murders? Sure, they can accurately mimic speech, but since they are only repeating phrases, it’s impossible to tell if they are mimicking something they heard on TV rather than in real life.
Doreen Plotkowski, the owner of a Michigan parrot store, claims that Bud’s repeated phrase is something the bird has “definitely heard before.” But an attorney in the case, Michael Walsh, doubts the reliability of the parrot’s words because he says there is no way to prove exactly what he is mimicking. Walsh claims that “you can’t rule out that the bird witnessed a homicide or that the bird witnessed something on TV.”
While these crazy-smart birds definitely seem to be reliable mimics, the fact of the matter is that without being able to communicate with them directly, there’s no way for us to know exactly who and what they are mimicking. Unless we can get these gabby birds to start talking to us mimic-free, it doesn’t look like they’ll be our most reliable legal witnesses any time soon.