Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrot Picture Day

Picture perfect … almost

As we begin planning the photo shoot for our “Welcome Spring” entry on Facebook, it struck me that most readers probably do not realize how much effort such shoots take. One might think that, because my parrots can do complex cognitive tasks and comprehend and produce English, that they are perfectly trained in all respects. Such is absolutely not the case! Just because they will do things like wait 15 minutes for a better treat, or vocally identify some optical illusions, doesn’t mean that they will happily have their picture taken. In fact, taking their picture necessitates dealing with several different (often simultaneous) problems.

Using Parrot-Approved Backgrounds

The first issue is the background that we use for each picture. I am extremely fortunate to have had, both now and in the past, students who are superb artists, and who come up with terrific ideas for different types of props. You can see some of these gorgeous pieces of art on our Facebook page. The problem is that the parrots don’t always agree with our artistic taste. So, there was that Halloween when the humans thought our “friendly ghost” was absolutely the cutest fellow ever…but Athena took one look and tried to get as far away as possible! And the paper candy corn that really did look good enough to eat…

Capturing The Perfect Parrot Pose

The second issue is getting the birds to pose. Athena is rarely a problem. As soon as she sees the camera, she gets into her “flirty” mode. I’m sure she was a runway model in a former life. Griffin, in contrast, despite being the subject of photo shoots for over 20 years, is of the “deer-in-the-headlights” mentality. He can be sitting in the same place, on the same perch, and look absolutely adorable…until he sees the camera. Sigh.

Working With Two Parrots

The third issue is coordinating the two birds’ behavior. I’m sure that anyone who has worked with either small children or any animals can commiserate. Just when the lighting is perfect, both birds are looking at the photographer, and the angles between them couldn’t be any better — one or the other decides it’s time to poop. Or that a feather needs adjusting. Or it seems like the right time to hop off the perch and mess with a prop. Or one or the other decides that it’s a good time for a nap. Or a sneeze. Or the phone rings and both birds startle. Or one of the other research associates in the lab inadvertently drops something and destroys everyone’s concentration. Most of the time it’s simply that when one parrot looks gorgeous, the other doesn’t…

Fortunately, my lab managers have always had endless patience. They will go through dozens of pictures, trying to find one or two that capture the mood that we want. Maybe someday we should put together a booklet of “outtakes” and sell it as a fundraiser item! You can see one of those pix — a “grumpy” Grif when we were trying to photograph him getting some ‘spoon tickles”…cute, but not exactly the pose for which we were hoping!

 

 

 

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.