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The U.S.'s only native parrot is being studied, to save it

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now let's talk about parrots. Does Polly want a cracker? What does Polly really want? Does Polly really want to hear BJ Leiderman, who writes her theme music? The only native parrot in the United States lives in the southern tip of Texas, where it is beloved by locals but threatened by habitat loss and pet poachers. NPR's John Burnett met up with the scientist who's trying to learn more about the smart and often poorly understood bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: We're here in Oliveira Park in the Texas border city of Brownsville at dusk. A few dog walkers and hoop shooters are out. In the western sky, as the sun is about to set, a large flock of parrots approaches. They're brilliant green with red splotches on their crowns.

KARL BERG: Did you hear that (vocalizing) by any chance?

BURNETT: Karl Berg is a pony-tailed, sandals-wearing biologist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville campus. He comes out here with his binoculars and recording equipment several times a week to observe and listen to the red-crowned parrots who roost in the eucalyptus trees.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

BERG: You're actually hearing the duets a little bit here between the contact calls and the begging call, the (vocalizing).

BURNETT: This parrot is an avian immigrant that flies back and forth across the border between a sliver of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. This makes it a Tex-Mex native, unlike its red-crowned cousins found in Florida and Southern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

BERG: Now, we have a whole lot of breeding parrots in the United States now, but almost all of them are exotic species that escaped from zoos or from families or were freed.

BURNETT: The lower Rio Grande Valley is a paradise for birdwatchers. They come here to check off the green jay, the inca dove and the chachalaca on their life list. And they come to see the multicolored flocks of parrots and parakeets with their distinctive squawks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

BURNETT: Linda Rockwell is a former board member of the American Birding Association who happened to be in the park this evening.

LINDA ROCKWELL: The parrots are so fascinating to watch because they're such a social bird. And they flock together. They communicate with each other. Watching the way birds interact with each other is one of the best parts of birding.

BURNETT: The ability of parrots to mimic human speech is one reason they're so coveted as caged birds. Parrots, along with ravens, are considered the most intelligent birds in the avian world. In other words, they don't just parrot what humans say. The most famous parrot of them all was Alex the African Grey. He had a vocabulary of 150 words and could form concepts. Here's Alex on a "NOVA" report identifying colors and shapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NOVA")

IRENE PEPPERBERG: Can you tell me what's different?

ALEX: Color.

PEPPERBERG: All right. Can you tell me what's same?

ALEX: Shape.

PEPPERBERG: Good boy.

BURNETT: When Alex died in 2007, he was so well known that he got obits in The New York Times and The Economist.

Across town from the park, in his cluttered lab on the UTRGV campus, Berg admires the legendary Alex.

BERG: Parrots in general are considered to be the most complex of non-human vocal imitators.

BURNETT: But Berg is taking a different approach than measuring the intelligence of talking parrots. The biologist wants to understand what parrots say when they communicate with each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

BURNETT: That's the sound of a duet of red-crowned parrots. Now here's the same recording at half speed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

BURNETT: I asked Berg what he thinks this male and female are communicating. He's pretty sure it has to do with mating behavior.

BERG: One hypothesis is that the pair is communicating to the other pairs that this is our nest and we're serious about it. And, you know, there might be a fight if you want to try and take it from us.

BURNETT: Like a couple putting down a contract on a house in a neighborhood they really like.

BERG: That's right. That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARROTS SQUAWKING)

BURNETT: The red-crowned parrot is so adored here that Brownsville has made it the official city bird. You see them all over the valley - in the trees, feeding on pecans, acorns and palm nuts.

We're back in Oliveira Park with Jazmin Barrientos, a high school biology teacher and a graduate student who's researching the parrot under Karl Berg.

JAZMIN BARRIENTOS: I've grown up with these parrots, and they would hang out in our backyard and eat whatever they wanted to because my grandma had a huge garden.

BURNETT: One of the serious threats to the species is people stealing nestlings to sell into the pet trade. It continues today.

BARRIENTOS: Growing up, I would see neighbors trying to catch them. The way that they would do it would be, like, with a hose, and they'd hose them down and then with a towel, like, run and grab them. And it's heartbreaking.

BURNETT: Here at the Avian Ecology Lab in South Texas, the researchers believe the more we learn about the intelligent and charismatic red-crowned parrot, the easier it is to protect this bird for all time. John Burnett, NPR News, Brownsville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.