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In my previous question: Magic for tone-deaf people in a world where magic is performed through song it was suggested by Ynneadwraith (many thanks by the way) that animals that produce music would have been able to cast spells before humans were able to. At first it seemed to contradict my requirements. After all, animals in the wild don't have words to their songs.

I then realised that trained birds, for example parrots, that can be taught to sing using actual human words might provide a solution.

My new question

Could trained parrots (or other imitative birds) be safely utilised by tone-deaf people to cast song-spells?

There seem to be risks - for example a parrot that had learned a fire-spell by rote (of course without understanding it) might set fire to an owner's house by accident. Almost any spell cast at the wrong moment could be disadvantageous.

So, would the solution of using imitative birds be safe or could it be made safe? If not why not?

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    $\begingroup$ umm....have you ever heard a parrot "sing"? its just as bad as a tone-deaf person...mocking bird might work if tone is a requirement $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jan 16 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JGreenwell - A vital part of spells is pronouncing the correct words with the correct melody. I'm not clear whether mockingbirds can actually imitate words. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Jan 16 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ I think cockatoos would be the best for fire and destruction spells. Would give kinda the twist to the legend of the Phoenix. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 16 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ nevermind, he emailed back: "Mocking birds did well in the study with bird song and near bird song (crazy watching them sound like ringtones) but for tone and clarity [related to human speech] the Mynah Bird was top." So I guess Mynah Bird would be the best choice $\endgroup$ – JGreenwell Jan 16 at 13:14
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I think we can get some idea from Alex the Parrot. Alex could answer "Yellow" when asked "What color key?" and answer "Key" when asked "What object yellow?" each when shown an array of different objects of different colors. He also appeared to be able to count up to six, answering "Five" when shown a table full of cubes of many colors and asked, "How many blue?"

But now we have to ask, did Alex go around at various times skwawking out "Key" and "Yellow" and "Five" at random times? To be honest, I do not know. But what I can infer from the article linked above and the few appearances Alex made in various TV documentaries I have seen, he might have at first, but later on, as he learned more what was expected, he did not. For example, the article states, "Pepperberg did not claim that Alex could use 'language', instead saying that he used a two-way communications code." This suggests that Alex would not have randomly uttered words, since this would not have gained him anything in the communication with his trainers.

Now on to how long it takes. Alex lived for 31 years and was in near constant training for his entire life, just beginning to learn the concept of under and over at the time of his passing. But we don't need our singing magic parrot to achieve that level necessarily, just to make fire on demand and never at any other time. I'm guessing here, but I think we can get there in under 10 years. Of course, during this time we need to keep trainee parrots in secure and isolated environments where risk to self and others is minimized.

Next (thanks JGreenwell for pointing this out), we have to consider whether a parrot can acurately reproduce the sounds. This was a problem with Alex as I recall, at first saying "Key" as a raspy guttural sound. But the trainer used modeling. The trainer asked a fellow human assistant, "What object yellow?" and the assistant answered mimicking Alex. The trainer then said, "Say it better," then the assistant answered again in his or her normal voice, then received a cracker. Alex caught on and rapidly said his words in very clear diction, or he didn't get his cracker. Your world's trainers will need to employ similar techniques.

Finally, users will obviously not be able to train the parrots themselves. After all, if getting the melody and rhythm just right is crucial to the spell, the tone-deaf person won't be the proper role model. This parallels Real World (TM) training of service dogs for the blind. A whole industry will spring up on your world where certain skilled magicians specialize in just this service, fostering and training young parrots, and when ready, placing them with those in need. This can give you an interesting plot point- in your society, is this service considered a commodity to be bought at a price (like Merry Maids), or a public benefit sponsored by volunteers and donations (like service dogs)?

In summary, yes it is possible. It will just take time, care, and skill.

(I just have to say it. This is among the most absurd questions and answers I have ever participated in. Bless this SE!)

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks - This is very insightful and I like the 'service parrot' idea. Your link to Alex the Parrot doesn't seem to lead anywhere useful. I'd be grateful for a better one. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Jan 16 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ I'm suddenly imagining a spell which creates parrot treats. The parrot would doubtless learn that spell to perfection quite rapidly. $\endgroup$ – Iiridayn Jan 16 at 21:23
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Burrhus Frederic Skinner would have a field day and jump out of his grave just to grasp this opportunity. He actually did comparable conditioning with many different animal species using his famous Skinner Box.

The principle is simple: reward the "trainee" for desirable behavior, punish for undesired behavior. Skinner managed to teach a pidgeon to play a short song on a miniaturized piano that way (by pecking on the keys). A short demonstration of the principle can be seen here (start at 2:33).

You start by giving the trainee a signal that you want to connect to the casting of a fireball. You give the trainee an example of what is expected (the first word of the song) and wait until the trainee repeated that word. Immediately reward with food.

Train this step, until the trainee repeats the word whenever you give the corresponding signal.

Then, bit by bit, demand that the trainee repeats more words, in the right rythm, with the right melody before it gets rewarded. Repeat until it learned the whole fireball song.

But don't forget the punishment whenever the trainee starts reciting the fireball song without you having given the signal for the fireball song. A song is not done in 5 seconds, so you have more than enough time to interrupt your trainee. I suggest a mild punishment to keep the trainee motivated long term.

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It is your world, but since you are trying to add realism... don't forget that your songbird (parrot/Mocking bird/cockatoo/whatever) would also have to direct the spell in the correct direction for it to be useful.

Generally trained animals look directly at the trainer... that'd be great for an armor spell, but not for a fireball spell.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point and would have to be accounted for. Speaking as someone who has trained dogs I can say they can be (and often are) trained to look at the tip of a pointer. i.ebayimg.com/images/g/F9cAAOSwAQBawYzU/s-l300.jpg. A fireproof pointer with a straw ball on the end would do the trick. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Jan 16 at 17:33

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