Avian Expert Articles

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

Many parrot species are endangered in the wild, and because most humans are more likely to want to conserve species with whom they share some commonalities, demonstrating avian intelligence can be incredibly helpful.

When I’m being interviewed by the media, I’m often asked why I study parrot cognition…What is the point? After all, my work doesn’t help to cure or prevent some dreadful disease, or provide the world with some new important invention.

My response, given many times, is that there are other very good reasons to do this work. One reason is to educate owners as to the intelligence of their avian companions, so that the birds can be given the appropriate mental stimulation to keep them happy and healthy. These birds are as smart as at least a 6-year-old child — one wouldn’t lock such a child alone in a playpen with only a few toys and snacks for over eight hours a day and expect the child to be a well-balanced individual!

Another reason is to assist with conservation efforts — many parrot species are endangered in the wild, and because most humans are more likely to want to conserve species with whom they share some commonalities, demonstrating avian intelligence can be incredibly helpful. I’ve also collaborated with therapists to adapt our training techniques to engender communication skills in children on the autistic spectrum. And I often talk with colleagues who are involved in designing various forms of artificial intelligence — who think birds might be good models for teaching AI systems how to learn. However, I also have a somewhat selfish reason — I want to find out just how clever these birds actually are, and more about the continuum between human and nonhuman intelligence. A little history helps to understand my point.

Animals Teach Us

Although Darwin’s concept of continuity was accepted by many biologically oriented scientists during his lifetime, it has taken almost a century for his proposal about the logical sequel to anatomical continuity — i.e., neurological, behavioral, psychological, and mental continuity — to be considered with comparable interest. Only in the late 1960s did scientists begin to accept that many cognitive processes observed and studied in humans might be found in nonhumans (see Hulse, Fowler, & Honig, 1968).

Only more recently has the scientific community accepted that many such processes can be found in non-primates, non-mammals, and even invertebrates. As a consequence of this acceptance, studies of nonhuman cognition have made, and continue to make, major contributions to our understanding of the origins and evolution of human cognitive processes. Specifically, insight into what are likely basic abilities are provided by the comparative study of how widely divergent, existent species — living in ecological habitats and social environment both similar to and different from those of our human ancestors — solve what are nevertheless often comparable problems. Notably, the wider the scope of research, the more species that we find capable of such intelligent action. At a recent international conference for psychological science (ICPS, Paris, March 2019), several symposia, my own included, compared nonhuman primates, cetaceans, dogs, wolves, parrots, turtles, and fish.

Parrots: Similar Smarts

My interest, of course, is in parrots — whose last common ancestor with humans dates from the time of the dinosaurs (Hedges et al., 1996)! Various arguments exist over the extent to which the avian and mammalian lines diverged and how similar evolutionary pressures resulted in what we call “convergent evolution.” For example, in a previous blog, I described the avian brain and why and how it is capable of all sorts of advanced cognition. I emphasized that although the avian brain looks very different from that of mammals, it functions in very similar ways.

Well, we know that the very different-looking but similar-functioning bits of brain that are found in mammals and birds — those bits that are responsible for intelligence — clearly derived from the same dinosaur brain. But did they evolve from the same piece of brain and evolutionary pressures were exerted that made them look different while retaining the same function? Or did they evolve from slightly different pieces, and evolutionary pressures were exerted that make them now function similarly? The real issue for me is the extent to which the abilities these bits subserve actually converge when we look at how well various different species solve similar tasks.

Let’s look at how evolutionary pressures might work to make or keep these functional similarities, whether they derived from the same or different bits. For example, if we look at African grey parrots and chimpanzees, we find the many similarities in intelligence that I have often described — both tend to solve problems at the level of young children (e.g., see figure below). Many similarities also exist in their ecological and ethological environments (Pepperberg, 2018).

They are both what are described as “K-selected”— both species are long-lived. Both have few offspring at any one time that have a relatively long juvenile period during which they continue to learn important physical and social skills from adults or peers. Both species have complex social environments — that is, interact with fairly large numbers of individuals over their lifetimes whom they have to recognize as friend or foe. Both have dominance hierarchies so that they need to learn complex skills such as transitive inference (i.e., “Sam beat up Joe, Joe beat up me — I should therefore infer that I’d better not challenge Sam!).

Both forage long distances each day so that they must have very reliable, rather large cognitive maps of their environment (i.e., information about where to find different sources of food and water and the capacity to update the information about these sources on a regular basis). It’s not too far-fetched to believe that the need to develop abilities to deal with these similar environments exerted similar evolutionary pressures on the ancestors of both of these species — and maybe our own — and that the results were the similarities in intelligence we now observe.

So, even though the study of parrot cognition may not seem as though it is of great use, the results of such studies may have considerable importance: Overall, the field of nonhuman cognition could provide essential knowledge crucial to the overall study of human cognitive processing!

Hedges, S. B., Parker, P. H., Sibley, C. G., & Kumar, S. (1996). Continental breakup and the ordinal diversification of birds and mammals. Nature, 381, 226–229.
Hulse, S.H., Fowler, H., & Honig, W.K. Eds. (1968). Cognitive Processes in Animal Behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Pepperberg, I.M. & Shive, H.A. (2001). Simultaneous development of vocal and physical object combinations by a Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus): Bottle caps, lids, and labels. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115,376-384.
Pepperberg, I.M. (2018). Grey parrots: Cognitive and communicative abilities. In N. Bueno & F. Amici (Eds.), A Practical Guide to Animal Cognition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

2 thoughts on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Why Study Parrot Cognition?

  1. I find it very ridiculous and ego oriented that it took so long for (male) scientists to notice that birds used tools and have feelings. Anyone that owns a pet knows they have feelings. I have concluded that humans can be very stupid and have been very stupid in the past. That fact that humans know more about the moon that the earth is another stupid thing that “we” have done. I often think that animals are probably more advanced then humans because I think they communicate without speaking. In fact I am pretty sure they do through my observation! 🙂 Thank God for Dr. Irene Pepperberg!!!

  2. Hi Dr. Pepperburg,
    I was amazed to find out that CAGP’s in the wild seem to hunt for the tallest, biggest, older trees to nest in. The very same trees that seem to be chopped down, even putting these parrots in more danger of being picked up for trade.
    Although I don’t know if my information is correct, however, I’m sure you’re aware of this, if these findings are true.
    Keep up your fantastic studies.

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