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Pretty Poll
by [?]

It is an error of youth to despise parrots for their much talking. Loquacity isn’t always a sign of empty-headedness, nor is silence a sure proof of weight and wisdom. Biologists, for their part, know better than that. By common consent, they rank the parrot group as the very head and crown of bird creation. Not, of course, because pretty Poll can talk (in a state of nature, parrots only chatter somewhat meaninglessly to one another), but because the group display on the whole, all round, a greater amount of intelligence, of cleverness, and of adaptability to circumstances than any other birds, including even their cunning and secretive rivals, the ravens, the jackdaws, the crows, and the magpies.

What are the efficient causes of this exceptionally high intelligence in parrots? Well, Mr. Herbert Spencer, I believe, was the first to point out the intimate connection that exists throughout the animal world between mental development and the power of grasping an object all round so as to know exactly its shape and its tactile properties. The possession of an effective prehensile organ–a hand or its equivalent–seems to be the first great requisite for the evolution of a high order of intellect. Man and the monkeys, for example, have a pair of hands; and in their case one can see at a glance how dependent is their intelligence upon these grasping organs. All human arts base themselves ultimately upon the human hand; and even the apes approach nearest to humanity in virtue of their ever-active and busy little fingers. The elephant, again, has his flexible trunk, which, as we have all heard over and over again, usque ad nauseam, is equally well adapted to pick up a pin or to break the great boughs of tropical forest trees. (That pin, in particular, is now a well-worn classic.) The squirrel, once more, celebrated for his unusual intelligence when judged by a rodent standard, uses his pretty little paws as veritable hands, by which he can grasp a nut or fruit all round, and so gain in his small mind a clear conception of its true shape and properties. Throughout the animal kingdom generally, indeed, this correspondence, or rather this chain of causation, makes itself everywhere felt; no high intelligence without a highly developed prehensile and grasping organ.

Perhaps the opossum is the very best and most crucial instance that could possibly be adduced of the intimate connection which exists between touch and intellect. For the opossum is a marsupial; it belongs to the same group of lowly-organized, antiquated, and pouch-bearing animals as the kangaroo, the wombat, and the other belated Australian mammals. Now everybody knows the marsupials as a class are nothing short of preternaturally stupid. They are just about the very dullest and silliest of all existing quadrupeds. And this is reasonable enough, when one comes to think of it, for they represent a very antique and early type, the first rough sketch of the mammalian idea, if I may so describe them, with wits unsharpened as yet by contact with the world in the fierce competition of the struggle for life as it displays itself on the crowded stage of the great continents. They stand, in short, to the lions and tigers, the elephants and horses, the monkeys and squirrels, of Europe and America, as the Australian blackfellow stands to the Englishman or the Yankee. They are the last relic of the original secondary quadrupeds, stranded for ages in a remote southern island, and still keeping up among Australian forests the antique type of life that went out of fashion in Europe, Asia, and America before the chalk was laid down or the London Clay deposited on the bed of our northern oceans. Hence they have still very narrow brains, and are so extremely stupid that a kangaroo, it is said–though I don’t vouch for it myself–when struck a smart blow, will turn and bite the stick that hurts him instead of expending his anger on the hand that holds it.