Avian Expert Articles

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

African greys
Griffin and Athena keep a careful watch of their bowls.

I’ve written before about Athena engaging in what appeared to be deceptive behavior, but
one of my former research associates, Francesca, recently shared this incident about Griffin. It seems that he may also be acting in interesting ways!

This incident involves Griffin’s attempt to steal banana slices from Athena. Every morning, both Grey parrots are fed breakfast by one of my research assistants. Francesca, who worked at the lab from 2016 to 2019 and observed the following behavior, always placed both birds on the wide sink counter near her while preparing breakfast, so she could monitor and interact with them, and feed them more efficiently.

Griffin’s Possibly Deceptive Behavior?

She always placed Griffin on the countertop along with both birds’ food bowls (which have different  patterns — the same bird always eats from the same bowl), while she placed Athena on a short wooden T-stand also placed on the countertop near her own bowl. Francesca’s rationale was that Griffin often prefers to perch on flat surfaces, and placing both birds on the same area without constant supervision can result in minor squabbles; thus, she placed Athena out of Griffin’s direct reach. She placed each bird’s individual food portions inside their respective bowls: Griffin would walk directly to his own to eat, and Francesca would lift Athena’s up to her perch so she could reach it (see below for the current arrangement, which is quite similar). Note that each bird receives about a quarter of a banana per day, cut into three or four thick round slices.

Griffin hardly ever approaches Athena’s bowl, focusing instead on his own portion exclusively. On rare occasions when he does wander toward her bowl, Francesca was always at the counter and either gently admonished him and moved Athena’s bowl out of his reach, or she picked Griffin up and returned him to his own bowl. On one occasion, however, she recalls having to leave the counter for an extended period of time to conduct another part of the morning opening procedure that was not proceeding properly. She does not specifically remember the issue, but common delays could include occasional difficulties with the lab humidifier or steaming of the breakfast vegetables.

Griffin Makes His Move

Normally Athena was left on her T-stand when such chores went quickly. Francesca believes that on this particular occasion the complication was taking longer than usual to resolve and, not being comfortable leaving Athena and Griffin unattended in the same space, she had placed Athena on her shoulder. After a few minutes away from the sink, she noticed, from the corner of her eye, that Griffin was moving along the countertop more than usual, and began to watch his actions carefully (but intentionally without turning toward him or in any way alerting him that she was watching).

She observed Griffin methodically walk over to Athena’s bowl from his (a distance of about 30 to 45 cm), select a piece of banana, and carry it back to his own bowl, placing it with his own banana portion. Shocked, she watched him repeat this action two or three more times before she intervened, walking over to the counter and re-allocating to Athena’s bowl the correct portion of banana.

Notable Actions

This observation is interesting for several reasons. First, Griffin did not simply walk to Athena’s bowl and eat some of her banana portion instead of his own (a situation in which he would have spent more time visibly near Athena’s bowl, and thus been more likely to be noticed before consuming the banana). Rather, he appeared to be methodically moving Athena’s banana slices to his own bowl, with the possible expectation that when each bowl would be placed on top of the correct bird’s cage after breakfast, as is the daily protocol, he would get to keep the extra.

Second, Francesca recalls having, at the time, the distinct impression that Griffin had waited until both she and Athena were neither nearby or paying attention before acting. She recalls being distracted for several minutes before noticing Griffin’s actions, and though she recounts that she cannot be sure Athena was not on her T-stand on the counter, as during a “normal” breakfast procedure (which she had conducted hundreds of times, and thus cannot remember exactly where Athena was in this one memory), she does believe that Athena was with her because she never left both birds unattended in the same space for longer than a few seconds, as would have been the case here.

What About Athena?

Francesca does not recall Athena reacting to Griffin’s actions in any way while he was taking her banana: It is likely, were Griffin indeed taking Athena’s banana while she was watching from her T-stand, that she would have jumped down to intervene, something she is perfectly capable of doing, as they are generally quite possessive of their bowls — but this did not occur. This event suggests that Griffin had some understanding of who was or was not watching him, what they might do in response to his actions, and how he could act so as to keep the stolen banana slices.

Did Griffin Display “Theory Of Mind?

If Griffin were indeed aware of the attentional state of others while attaining his food prize, his behavior would suggest some level of “theory of mind”— of being aware of what others do and do not know. Only one instance exists of Griffin performing this behavior; however, he was clearly attempting to keep more banana for himself for later consumption, rather than just immediately consuming as much of Athena’s banana as possible. Griffin’s actions do appear to fit the behavioral criteria for what is known as “tactical deception”— simply misleading another individual as to the existence of banana in Athena’s bowl. Had it additionally been possible to prove he was truly aware of the attentional state of Athena and Francesca, and using that information to his advantage, the incident could suggest intentional deception and thus “theory of mind.”

It seems as though we will have to wait to find out the extent of Griffin’s understanding, but these kinds of anecdotes are important — they make us aware of what kinds of information the birds might be processing, and thus ensure that we pay a lot more attention to their actions in the laboratory outside of our formal experiments.

3 thoughts on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Did Griffin Stealthily Steal Banana Slices?

  1. My female CAGP has become very demanding of attention lately since I’m working from home. In fact so much so,
    she’ll go to length to push the envelope has far as she can; She’ll move dish around and around till it falls over and makes a noise and her food will fall out, just so I’ll come out to her room where she’s at. If I tell her she’s going to lose her food, if it hasn’t tipped over yet, she still continues to do it. Then I just pick up the dish and take it away from
    her. One thing see likes me to eat when she eats. Then when she’s on top of her cage she sneaks down to the
    bottom and I don’t like her to be on the floor. I tell her to go back up to the top and she’ll go, but as soon as I turn my back she’s sneaking down again. It’s seems like defiant behavior. When I get ready to go out, she says Bye many times, but if I walk past her cage she’ll nip at me, and she’s not a mean parrot. Her behavior has changed since our
    Ragdoll cat died two years ago. Also when she knows I’m upset with her, she calls out Grandma Gold who’s been
    dead for about 10 years. It seems she wants me to be in the same room with her all her waking hours.

    1. My pacific parrotlet would often wants to have a taste of whatever we are eating. And of course, we would not let him. Today I was eating my food, with him eating from his own dish, I turned around to talk to my mum and when I turn back he was trying to grab a bite from my plate. And as I caught him, he froze midair, unsure of what to do. Deceiving little one.

  2. Griffin is so smart and sneaky! I believe that they are very sensitive to our emotions as well. My parrot has been cheating at a color/shape sorting game by observing my expression!

    Last night I had a trial run with a card game (red circle, green triangle) with my 2.5 months old pacific parrotlet, where I would hold out one of the two cards and he has to fetch me an identical card. Unsurprisingly, he fails. After accidentally picking the correct card at the first trial, and receiving praises and treats, he continues to fetch me the card at that position (i.e. the card on the right) and fails after I switched positions of the cards.

    However, after several fails, after he picked up a card, he would turn around and peeked at my face. If I am expressionless, he would go to the other card and fetch it to me. If I look happy, he fetch me that card.

    I was really amazed at how he appreciates a right-wrong card concept at once and was able to read my micro-expressions so accurately.

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