Avian Expert Articles

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Hatchday Celebrations — Updated!

two African grey parrots eating treats on a table
Happy hatch-date to you! African grey parrots Griffin and Athena co-celebrate their hatch-date anniversaries by digging into their individual banerry-corknut cakes, which are made mostly of apples, almond flour, and ground almonds.

All labs have a distinct culture. The best labs have a culture of cooperation — everyone working together for a common goal. Of course, it is impossible for harmony to reign 100% of the time, but the idea is to have any problems or issues resolved quickly and appropriately. Our birds are very sensitive to the “mental atmosphere” of the lab, and one way of keeping them happy is to keep lab members happy. (Note that the same is true for birds living in a home — if the household is unhappy, the parrots are likely to feel unsafe and reflect the tension in their behavior patterns.)

Through the years, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to attain and maintain a positive lab culture is to have fun activities in which everyone can participate. Some labs manage that through holiday and end-of-term parties; others through celebrating birthdays or events like having a grant funded or a paper published.

In my own labs, which over the years have relied almost exclusively on undergraduates rather than graduate students and post-doctoral fellows (a much more common situation), arranging something like a lab party is almost impossible. With all the various classes and extracurricular commitments in which a typical undergraduate is involved, simply scheduling times for them to work with the parrots is itself a major challenge. Anything beyond that just isn’t manageable. Thus, we’ve often relied on very simple things, like having coffee and tea available for students all day, and snacks that reflect whatever holiday is relevant (e.g., Halloween and Valentine’s Day candies, etc.)

There can, of course, be a downside to that solution — as when one of our parrots, Kyaaro, somehow managed to get to the bowl of Easter jelly beans and took a bite out of every bean he could reach! Thankfully it was just sugar. We are, by the way, extremely careful about keeping things like chocolate WAY out of reach!

Happy “Hatchday” Celebrations

One event that we do manage (at least outside of COVID) is a celebration of the parrots’ hatchdays. Last year, I wrote about a “a very merry (un)hatchday” because of COVID, and despite our hopes, this year wasn’t a whole lot better. Still, we are keeping up the tradition. The parrots got the banerry-corknut cake that they adore (see below) and enjoyed it greatly! Thanks to COVID, only two of us were present, but I don’t think the parrots minded, given how focused they were on their treat.

Note that if we don’t know their exact hatchday, we celebrate their first day in lab. When not in the midst of COVID, we bring in an appropriate cake — one that the birds can eat — and share it among all who are in lab at the time. We leave it out for those who arrive later in the day to partake.

Selecting The Right Cake

Determining the cake flavor is not always simple. After Alex swiped a bite of carrot cake from a student, we realized that it was his absolute favorite, and he thus had small pieces yearly (sans the frosting). We even had a second celebration in New York City for Alex’s 25th hatchday, so that our friends there could take part. We had a huge cake and drinks for a large number of Alex’s supporters at the apartment of my friends Debby and Michael Smith in Battery Park; their African grey, Charlie Parker, stood in for Alex in the pictures!

For many years, we gave Griffin a carrot cake as well, although he never seemed to eat much. We should have realized the problem — he would never eat carrots on their own and would actively toss them out of his bowl! Duh! Finally, one of my lab managers found a recipe for the above-mentioned banerry-corknut cake (made mostly of apples, almond flour, and ground almonds). Griffin eats as much as we allow. Thankfully, Athena adores it as well, so we can have one cake for them both. Their hatchdays are only a few days apart, and so we have one celebration for them both.

One of the really neat things about their hatchday celebrations is that students from past years often remember to send the birds timely greetings. I can’t claim that the parrots remember the names of the students when I read the notes, but I can say that the current lab members appreciate hearing from their former compatriots and the news that I relate about what folks who have graduated from the lab have gone on to achieve. It is part of our lab culture, and I do think that knowing that one is part of a long tradition is a positive part of that culture.

Last year I had dreams that by 2022 the world would be back to normal, but such has not been the case. Nevertheless, we are really hoping to be able to have a much bigger event next year, because that is when Athena turns 10, but who knows what is in store for any of us?!?!

2 thoughts on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Hatchday Celebrations — Updated!

  1. I always love to hear about Griffin & Athena & my CAGP, Raphaelle, does too. She’s asleep, but I’ll
    relay the update. This is the first time that I’ve heard about ‘Hatchday Celebrations’! However, Raphaelle celebrates everyday when I get home.
    Our atmosphere is talktive, telling her about my day & she tries to do the same, we share laughs,
    music, & at least 1 special small treat. But on very special days, she receives a larger treat. She loves when I read & try to sing to her & even pretend to be an animal, another person, etc..

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