Day in the Life of Pepperberg’s Parrots

img_8643I’m often asked about the daily routine in my lab. Many people wonder just how much time the parrots spend in training and testing, and how we balance their other needs — socialization, play, etc. The short answer is that the lab is run a lot like a children’s pre-school, with lots of time for recess, and with different schedules for weekdays and weekends. The long answer can be found below.

First, let’s discuss a bit about the environment. The lab is in the basement of a building on the Harvard campus. The reason for being in the basement is for the safety of the parrots. We can have much greater security without windows and being away from most of the “comings and goings” that are part of university campus life. (We did have space on an upper floor during a short period of basement renovation — although it was absolutely beautiful, Griffin and Athena were often distracted by the red-tail hawks that would fly by. We always wondered if the hawks were scouting out their potential dinner!) As a consequence of our basement habitat, the first thing happening every morning is that, at about 8:30 a.m, a small “dawn” light comes on. That way, the birds are not at all startled when the banks of overhead full-spectrum lights turn on at about 9 a.m. to provide the equivalent of daylight.

At 9 a.m., the first students appear. Their jobs are to open the cages so the parrots can come out, and to start breakfast. Breakfast means cleaning and refilling water bowls and dishes of dry food, and chopping the seasonal assortment of organic fresh fruits and vegetables that are provided in addition to their dry food. The parrots get to do what they want while breakfast is being prepared. Usually, they preen or watch the students pretty closely. Griffin and Athena each have a few specific food preferences, but they both really like the mashed organic yam that is warmed up and fed by hand.

Time To Get To Work

About 10:30 a.m., when breakfast is finished and they have had some time to digest their food, both Griffin and Athena have their first work session. An hour is blocked out for each session, but the birds rarely work the entire time. So, for example, in a session in which we are teaching Athena English labels to identify objects, success is rewarded by the object itself and that means that she can chew or play with it for as long as she likes, while she hears us repeat the label in various sentence frames (“Oh, you are chewing paper.” “You have a big piece of “paper”).

Sometimes more of the hour is spent in allowing her to play with these items than asking questions or modeling the answers, but that’s fine. She’s having fun and realizing that her vocalizations get her what she wants, which encourages her to use those sounds appropriately. Sometimes both birds are sequentially doing the same task, but are at different stages, so a student can alternate between birds. Sometimes one student distracts one of the parrots with toys so that the second student who is in the lab can test the other parrot on a particular type of task (see attached video of our visual search task).

At the end of the hour, both birds get what we call “physical therapy.” Although Athena likes to climb up and down her cage and play with her many toys, Griffin is more of a “perch potato,” and thus needs to be encouraged to be active. Our veterinarian and her assistants have come up with a number of different types of activities — things like climbing up and down a slanted surface — in which both parrots are engaged. Sometimes we have the birds hold on tightly to our hands as we run around the lab, encouraging them to use their wings to “fly” without actually taking off. Such exercises keep their flight muscles in tune, even though our space isn’t really big or safe enough for actual flight.

The birds then get lunch — some cooked organic grains with various supplements in addition to their dried food — and subsequently a shower. We then give them time to nap, “hang out” on a cage or with the students, and have us do some preening (see last month’s blog).

In the wild, this would be the hottest time of day, when they would be resting, so we try to recreate that type of situation. Each day during this two hour period, we also thoroughly scrub and disinfect one bird’s cage and do a quick clean-up of the other, alternating cages each day. I try to come into the lab at this time, preening Griffin first, then Athena, and I catch up on what has happened in the morning session.

After lunch, we schedule three hours of sessions, although, as in the morning, the birds aren’t actually working for anything like three full hours. Usually, one bird is being distracted with toys or preening for an hour while the other is being trained or tested, although sometimes they work on the same type of task. Interestingly, if Griffin isn’t in a session, he often says, “Wanna nut,” which is his signal to us that he really wants to do a task for which he might get a bit of raw cashew as a reward. Athena, who hasn’t yet learned that phrase, might use some very loud parrot squawks for the same purpose. Depending on what type of task is scheduled, I might stay in lab to run a session; afterwards, I’ll go back to my office to write, or leave to teach or attend a seminar.

By 5 p.m., the day has pretty much ended, with the birds now getting dinner … again, some more cooked organic grains along with their dried food. They spend as much time eating as they like, although it is usually Athena who is more interested in dinner than Griffin. They can play with toys, rest in their cages, or choose to be with the students.

I usually return to the lab about 6 p.m. for another round of preening and, again, to learn what has happened in sessions. At 7 p.m., I leave and the students begin the evening closing chores … cleaning and refilling bowls of water and dried food, removing all uneaten grains, vacuuming, etc. By about 8 p.m., birds are put inside their cages and it is “dusk”; the main banks of lights go off and they have a night light for about half an hour so they can get settled for the evening. By 8:30 p.m., the night light goes out so that they can have the same 12 hour period of darkness that they would have in equatorial Africa.

Weekends are different only in that we rarely schedule any training or testing sessions. Everyone needs a break from routine! However, if Griffin insists on requesting nuts, the students will do some reviews, and, of course, Athena can watch and learn. Students, however, do continue to talk to the birds about the activities in which they are engaging, play with them, and interact as much as the birds demand.

We think that our birds have a pretty good work-life balance!

Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

About Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is an adjunct associate professor at the Dept. of Psychology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. She is also a lecturer and research associate at Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA.