Avian Expert Articles

Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a lecturer and research associate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her research lab is located. You can help Dr. Pepperberg continue the groundbreaking parrot research she began more than 30 years ago with Alex, the African grey parrot who won admirers from around the world with his cognitive abilities.

If you shop online through sites such as Amazon.com, you can designate the Alex Foundation to receive a percentage of your final sales, or register with the Alex Foundation at iGive.com and a percentage of sales from companies associated with iGive will go to the foundation. The Alex Foundation also has a “Donate” button linked to PayPal. Visit The Alex Foundation and click on the “Support Us” link for more information.

Read more about the lab at The Alex Foundation Facebook page and at The Alex Foundation Twitter account.

Articles by Irene:

African grey parrot Alex

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Yes, Our Birds Mean What They Say

The most common question Dr. Irene Pepperberg encounters is if parrots truly understand what they are saying. In her newest blog, Dr. Pepperberg offers some notable experiences with African greys Alex, Griffin, and Athena that might not hold up to scientific scrutiny but are nonetheless valuable in demonstrating parrots’ impressive cognitive abilities.

African grey parrots

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrots On The Move—Again!

In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg talks about African greys Griffin and Athena’s recent move into a spacious two-bedroom apartment. Surprisingly, the grey who typically doesn’t like change seems to be adjusting quicker than their flockmate. Dr. Pepperberg gives us the backstory.

African grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Birds Do Not Like to be Tricked!

Dr. Irene Pepperberg explains the “treat substitution” trick, where a treat is moved from where the test subject assumes it should be or it is switched out with a less favored treat. Learn the reasons why birds and other prey animals form expectations of where food is located, and why they demonstrate a signs of distress when their expectations are challenged.

two African grey parrots eating leaf of chard

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Dealing with Picky Eaters

Parrots, like people, have their individualized tastes in food. This includes their own interpretations of what constitutes fresh produce, as well as the order in which food should be eaten. In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg dishes on African greys Athena and Griffin’s specific food preferences.

african grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: When Label Acquisition Hits a Snag

In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg explains the concept of mutual exclusivity—how it pertains to children and how it can be applied to parrots.

african grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: What Goes into Research Design

In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg explains how, when working with parrots, designing and implementing seemingly simple experiments are never as easy as one might assume.

African grey parrots celebrate hatch day

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: African Greys Griffin & Athena Celebrate Their Hatchdates

A Very Merry (Un-)Hatchday in CovidLand…. I felt that the title was appropriate, given that (a) everyone I know feels as though they have dropped down a “rabbit hole” this year, into a place as confusing as Alice’s Wonderland, and (b) for the second year in a row we will not be having a traditional […]

two African grey parrots perching indoors

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: More on Individual Differences in Parrots

Dr. Irene Pepperberg talks about the individual preferences of the African grey parrots in her cognitive research lab. She also shares why personality differences among the flock oftentimes require using different approaches when it comes to training and testing.

African grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrots & Vocal Learning

In her latest blog, Dr. Pepperberg explores parrots’ aptitude for vocal learning, specifically how their propensity to be open-ended vocal learners means that, unlike most animal species, they are capable of learning new utterances their entire lives.

African grey

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Some Parrots Dislike Uncertainty & Novelty

Some birds are inclined to be cautious and wary of new things, while others seem to exhibit an immediate curiosity, and still more land somewhere in between. In her latest blog, Dr. Pepperberg discusses the concept of neophobia (dislike of novelty) and neophilia (attraction to novelty), and the degree of which it can vary among bird species. She also dishes on why our companion parrots tend to like consistent schedules.

African greys perched on bowl and perch

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrots & People—Relationships Built on Trust

In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg dishes on how our feathered companions rely on their humans to not only provide the essentials such as food and water, but, in a broader aspect, a sense of security.

African greys Athena and Griffin

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Giving Thanks to the Caretakers

In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg shares her thoughts on the past year as 2020 comes to a close. Despite the often daunting challenges many faced due to COVID, she writes about giving thanks to those in the animal community who stay devoted to their work to give to our beloved pets as well as pets in need care and attention in this time of crisis.

face of African grey parrot

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Research Under COVID-Optimal Conditions

Dr. Irene Pepperberg gives us an update on how she is forging ahead despite that challenges posed by COVID-related social distancing requirements and the shutdown of her cognitive behavior research lab on the Harvard campus.

African grey parrot in front of computer

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Virtual Interactions with Our Parrots

Do parrots dig virtual interactions? Dr. Irene Pepperberg explains why parrots see things a bit different than us when it comes to digital platforms like Zoom, FaceTime and Skype.

African greys perched on bowl and perch

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Did Griffin Stealthily Steal Banana Slices?

In her latest blog, Dr. Irene Pepperberg points out the importance of paying attention to African greys Griffin and Athena’s actions outside of formal cognitive behavior experiments. Case in point, Griffin’s seemingly stealth maneuver to score more of a favorite treat.

African grey parrot Alex

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: A Parrot’s Concept Of Same-Different

Dr. Pepperberg revisits a study done decades ago with Alex the African grey that has received renewed interest with recent studies done with children — how well do individuals understand the concept of same-different?

African grey parrot

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Show Remorse?

When a prestigious behavior journal welcomed scientists to submit anecdotal observations of nonhuman actions that suggested possible comparisons with those of humans, a recent episode with African grey Griffin sprung to mind. Did Griffin show signs of remorse after delivering an unexpected bite?

African grey

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Can Parrots Win At The Shell Game?

How good are you at the “shell game”… can you follow an object that is shuffled around under shells or cups? Imagine being tested on your ability to track not just one colored object but four! Dr. Irene Pepperberg shares the results of how African grey Griffin’s visual working memory stacks up when compared to adults and children.

African greys eating treat on table

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrots Adapt During Coronavirus Lockdown

Dr. Irene Pepperberg fills us in on how African greys Griffin and Athena, as well as she and her staff, are handling their “new normal,” albeit hopefully a temporary one. She also dishes on how they found some creative ways to celebrate two big milestones — the birds’ birthdays!

Dr Pepperberg nose to beak with African grey named Griffin

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Life In The Time Of Coronavirus

What’s an academic science lab to do when e-mails from the administration start popping up stating in-person instruction was to cease immediately, followed by directives to vacate the campus in light of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis? What if said science lab was home to a flock of parrots known around the world for their contributions to the study of cognitive behavior? Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her research assistants found themselves in a scramble to ensure everyone— birds and humans — found safe places to stay. See where everyone is now.

African grey portrait

Comparative Cognition — The Joys & Difficulties

A lot of planning goes into creating ways to test the parrots’ intelligence to see how they perform on tasks compared to the results of those undertaken by children and primates. But what happens when two hands are required to solve a problem? Dr. Pepperberg describes the challenges and possible solutions to an intelligence test to circumvent the fact that parrots are hands-free.

African grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Can African Greys Spot Which Container Holds More Liquid?

African grey parrots Athena and Griffin are tasked with the challenge of tracking the larger amount of liquid that is poured into various containers to test their grasp of the concept of “overconservation,” where the experimenter starts with different amounts and tests whether the subjects can track the larger amount after various transformations. See where the parrots succeeded as well as what tended to slip them up on this highly challenging task.

African grey parrots

Friends or Frenemies—How Well Do Parrots Interact with Each Other?

For parrots in the wild, flock dynamics include bonded pairs, siblings, and flockmates who forage for food together, play together, or simply co-exist with one another (and, of course, help keep a lookout for predators). What about companion parrots? Will two parrots get along? Dr. Pepperberg dishes on the interactions among her African grey parrots, as well as explains why it can be challenging so to predict how flock dynamics will play out inside the home.

African grey

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Vet Visits Are Essential

Dr. Pepperberg shares her experiences with taking African greys Griffin and Athena (and Alex before them) to the vet for their well-bird health checkups, which, with their verbal communication prowess, has led to some interesting vet interactions.

African grey

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Athena’s Unexpected Health Issue

Dr. Pepperberg dishes on a recent health scare she experienced with African grey Athena. She gives us a first-hand account of dealing with Athena’s sudden feather issues to remind us that seemingly minor or temporary changes in a parrot’s environment can affect the bird’s health in unexpected ways.

African grey parrot Alex

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Vocal Turn-Taking In Parrots

Do birds take turns when conversing or is this a uniquely human skill? Dr. Irene Pepperberg addresses birds’ use of “countersinging” and “duets” as forms of vocal communication.

African grey parrot on shelf in cage

Let’s Talk About The Weather: Parrots & Rainstorms

Dr. Pepperberg dishes on how her birds, African greys Griffin and Athena, and Alex before them, have noticeably different reactions to inclement weather. She also reveals that some wild birds have a special pressure-sensitive organ that makes them particularly in tune with barometric pressure.

African grey parrot

Do Parrots Understand What You Are Saying?

Can birds understand what their people are saying and/or understand what he or she is saying? Dr. Irene Pepperberg says the answer depends on the type of interactions parrots have with their owners. Discover how the way you interact with your feathered companion, as well as flock dynamics, can influence parrot communication.

African grey on perch by window

Pepperberg’s Lab: African Greys Get a Skyline View

Dr. Pepperberg takes us inside her Harvard lab, where African grey parrots Griffin and Athena call home. We also get a look at their cushy temporary quarters on the building’s eighth floor, complete with a breathtaking view of the Boston skyline. The panoramic view comes with potential visual encounters with a pair of red-tailed hawks—see how the greys react.

African grey parrot looking at keys

Pepperberg’s Lab: When Parrots Go “Off-Script”

Dr. Pepperberg’s work with parrots revolves around reproducing behaviors using scientific methods to attain statistical significance. Of course, parrots being parrots, there are plenty of incidents where one of her African greys says or does something that perfectly captures their mood or preference, but which cannot be scientifically documented. African grey Griffin, like Alex before him, certainly knows how to get his point across to Pepperberg and her research students. See how these anecdotes provide interesting insights into how the mind of a parrot may work.

African grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: When Favored Treats Aren’t Enough

What happens when a parrot is asked to repeat a task over and over …will the prospect of receiving a favorite treat be enough to keep him going? Or do parrots, even when lavishly rewarded, reach their boiling point? See how African grey parrot Griffin fared when tasked with verbally labeling the same objects repeatedly during the course of several days.

African grey headshot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Why Study Parrot Cognition?

Studies of nonhuman cognition have made, and continue to make, major contributions to our understanding of the origins and evolution of human cognitive processes, and much more. Parrot cognition studies in particular have a positive impact on pet bird care, conservation, child cognitive therapies, and even artificial intelligence. See what drives Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s passion for parrot research.

African grey

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Mutual Exclusivity In Parrots — A Special Case Of Inference

Dr. Irene Pepperberg tests African grey parrot Griffin’s cognitive skills, going beyond the concept of “inference by exclusion” to the trickier concept of mutual exclusivity (ME). Would Griffin understand that an object could, for example, be both “green” and “wool,” or “blue” and “wood?”

yellow crown amazon parrot

How Good is a Parrot’s Long-Term Memory?

How well do parrots remember situations, other parrots, and people over the course of their long lives? Dr. Pepperberg, gives us a rundown on research that points to parrots as having brain areas that function in ways similar to the human cortex, and how their extremely high neural densities enable advanced cognitive processing—which requires good memory.

African Grey Parrot on a perch looks at two differenty sized and colored plastic cups

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Putting Parrots’ Inferential Knowledge To The Test

When her colleagues at Harvard questioned Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s 2-cup test success that showed parrots are capable of inferential knowledge to make decisions, Pepperberg and students at her cognitive behavior research lab upped the ante from the 2-cup test to 3- and 4-cup tests. They once again put African grey Griffin to the test. See how Griffin fared, especially when a coveted Skittle treat reward was at stake.

African grey parrot

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Fish &  Parrots  Outperform Apes & Monkeys

If you put parrots (specifically, African grey parrots), fish, monkeys and apes to the test on who could figure the fastest way to procure two rewards instead of one, who would come out on top? Dr. Pepperberg and friends of her cognitive behavior research lab recently modeled a test for her flock to see how they would fair in a choice-themed task inspired by wrasse fish, and tested on primates as well.

african grey training

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Parrots Show Self-Control

  Grey parrots may sometimes be impulsive—think about how often you may have had to give your bird multiple timeouts for the same behavior (like chewing on your sunglasses) in a very short time period. However, my students and I have shown that our parrot, Griffin, can actually exhibit quite a bit of self-control. We […]

African grey portrait

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Why Parrots Play Favorites

Dr. Pepperberg notes that she and her staff at her cognitive behavior research lab haven’t noticed a one-person tendency among her flock of birds; but she has experienced the avian equivalent of the “cold shoulder” from time to time. Get a glimpse of how flock dynamics can fluctuate in the wild and how parrots’ natural instincts might affect their behavior in the home.

African grey

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: When Parrots Speak Their Mind…Or Not

If you are the director of a world-famous animal cognitive behavior research lab, what do you do when your feathered diva doesn’t follow directions? Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her assistants start by having African grey Athena watch her flockmate Griffin perform a requested task with the hope that she’ll be inspired to model his behavior. When that fails, see how Athena has her own way of proving just how smart parrots are.

African greys on beach set

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Fun Fundraising Featuring The Parrots

Devising new ways to test parrots’ cognitive skills is the exciting part of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her staff’s work. The challenging part is finding the exact words to sum up a study — and the even more challenging part is finding creative ways to inspire people to donate to help fund the lab’s research. Fortunately, the parrots can usually be relied upon to “lend a wing” to the cause. African grey Griffin and his fellow greys have been going on epic “outings” to inspire donors to flock to the lab’s Facebook and Tumbler pages.

African grey parrot given choice of cups with rewards

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Understand “Process of Elimination?”

Process of elimination and inference are two powers of reasoning, and Dr. Pepperberg conducted fascinating tests to determine the existence of inference in African greys.

Dr Pepperberg and African grey parrot

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Engage In Cooperative Behavior?

Will African grey parrots share food or ask humans for help? The latest experiments at Dr. Pepperberg’s lab give some interesting answers!

Dr. Irene Pepperberg posed with two others

Parrots In Need & War Veterans Bond At Serenity Park

  My topic this month is quite a bit different than usual. Rather than a report of the activities of the parrots in the Pepperberg Lab, it revolves around a visit I took to a very interesting place just about two years ago. The place is called Serenity Park, and it is the subject of […]

African grey parrot on a perch

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Understand Probability?

To test a parrot’s ability to understand probability, Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s cognitive behavior research lab recently presented African grey parrot Griffin with a task similar to what a 6-8 year-old child might be tasked to do — using three of one item and one of another, if one item was removed, what was the removed item likely to be? Griffin’s answers might surprise you.

African grey, grey parrot, African grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Research Lab: “What’s Mine is Mine and What’s Yours is Mine”

“What’s mine is mine and what’s your is mine.” Does this sum up your feathered friend’s antics? Dr. Irene Pepperberg explains not only how this parrot quirk is based on natural behavior, but she also shares how we can use it to our advantage in the home.

African grey, African grey parrot, grey parrot

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Griffin Speaks His Mind

As companion animals, parrots are unique in that they can use human language to verbally communicate with us. Dr. Irene Pepperberg knows first-hand the advantages of working with such communicative subjects. African grey Griffin, for example, can verbalize requests to Dr. Pepperberg and her research assistants, such as when he wants to go back to the cage (“Wanna go back”) or sit with them (“Wanna go chair”). But this command of words also creates some interesting dilemmas on how to talk in front of a parrot that understands what you are saying.

african grey parrot

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Prepping For A Film Crew Visit

Inviting a film crew into a research lab devoted to the study of cognitive behavior in parrots involves not only prepping the lab, but the parrots and the filmmakers. Dr. Irene Pepperberg shares her account of having a film crew join her in the lab.

African grey parrot being shown red triangle block

How Dr. Pepperberg Chooses What Topics To Study

The inspirations for topics of Dr. Pepperberg’s African grey studies come from many different sources, and all add up to fascinating information being revealed.

African grey parrot Athena drinking grape juice from tiny cup

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrots’ Cognitive Abilities Put To The Liquid Test

After a certain age, children are able to understand conservation of amounts. Can birds also understand that a change in shape might not change the amount?

Blue fronted Amazon eating

Dr. Pepperberg Dishes: Will Parrots Work For Food?

Studies point to an interesting fact: Working for food rewards parrots with more than just food to eat. Find out what this means.

African grey parrot being shown red triangle block

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Athena’s Antics

Our youngest bird, Athena, can present some interesting challenges to our research. We sometimes joke that she doesn’t have an “off switch.”

African grey parrot Athena drinking grape juice from tiny cup

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Catering to Parrots’ Tastes

Dr. Pepperberg reveals some unconventional, and unsung, activities needed to get data from the African grey parrots in her lab.

face of African grey parrot

Why Parrots Are So Smart

In recent decades, studies are revealing how birds’ brains work. Learn how their brains are similar and different from mammal brains, and how different bird types have different brains.

African grey parrot being shown red triangle block

Pepperberg’s Parrots Surprise With Word Choices

The talkative African grey parrots Dr. Pepperberg works with in her research lab communicate in English, and sometimes they surprise lab staff. See why!

Exercise device for Parrots

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Getting Parrots To Exercise

Exercise is particularly important for our parrots, as most conditions in captivity are extremely different from the lives they live in the wild.

African grey parrot on a perch

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrot Picture Day

Dr. Pepperberg gives a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of getting parrots to pose during photo shoots, where props and distractions abound.

Congo African Grey Parrot on a cage

How Dr. Pepperberg Taught Parrots To Use Speech Appropriately

Early on in her behavioral research with Alex the African grey, Dr. Irene Pepperberg began incorporating what she refers to as the model/rival (M/R) system to teach a parrot how to speak and how to use speech appropriately, which also allows the bird to verbally communicate requests.

Dr Pepperberg nose to beak with African grey named Griffin

Parrots Find Creative Ways To Delay Bedtime

With cognitive abilities matching that of a 5-6 year old, African grey parrots can likewise come up with some creative distractions to delay bedtime. This month, Dr. Pepperberg gives us a look back at the bedtime antics of Alex the African grey, as well as how current greys Griffin and Athena attempt to throw a wrench in attempts at a good night routine.

African grey parrot on a perch

Parrots Can Play Mind Games

Research with parrots leads to some unexpected results. Some pleasant, like learning words that weren’t trained, and some unpleasant, like acting out.

African Grey Parrot on a perch looks at two differenty sized and colored plastic cups

Day in the Life of Pepperberg’s Parrots

Curious to know what an average day is like in Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s research lab on the Harvard campus? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of African greys Griffin and Athena!

Subscribe to our newsletter