Avian Expert Articles

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: When Parrots Speak Their Mind…Or Not

African greyFrom previous blogs, you can probably figure out that our youngest bird, Athena, while quite smart, absolutely has a mind of her own. She definitely can use English speech, but only when she wants to do so. Thus, she’ll gladly produce, “Yam” in the morning to get the research assistants to feed her before they feed Griffin, and likewise will label some of her other favorite foods when it is in her best interest. Similarly, although she hasn’t quite perfected “Shoulder” or “Back” (to the cage), given that those are two of her preferred locations, she works hard to produce something we can understand.

Athena—So Smart but Soooo Difficult!

Athena’s modus operandi, however, seems to be to say something almost perfectly, assume “Been there, done that,” and then decide that she doesn’t need to utter it again any time soon. Needless to say, such behavior is not only frustrating to observe, but makes our research quite difficult. We’ve attempted to cope by working on tasks with Athena that involve comprehension rather than production. We are doing several of these at the moment; in each case the task involves a two-choice procedure. We are also doing some of the same tasks with Griffin, so she can initially watch what he is doing and model her behavior on his. (Eventually, when he gets to the testing phase on those tasks, we won’t let her watch so that she’ll have to figure things out on her own.)

Right now, for example, we are giving her a simple “match-to-sample” problem. (Griffin already knows match-to-sample, so his tasks are a bit different and more difficult, but the idea is the same; see picture of him working on bigger-smaller below.) We put her on a T-stand in front of a wooden stool, place two woolen pompons of two different colors on a tray that is resting on the stool, make sure she can see them both, show her a third pompon that is the same color as one of the two existent ones, and ask her to “Match color-X” (see photo).

She can attend to either the vocal or the visual cue—for now, it doesn’t matter—we just want her to learn to match on command. If she’s correct, she gets a small treat, like a quarter of a piece of slightly sweetened cereal—something that is not part of her normal diet. If she makes a mistake, the tray is pulled back and shown to a student who is correct and who then gets the treat. In most laboratories, subjects will do a minimum of 20 such trials in one session. Notably, we’ve learned that with both Griffin and Athena, we can’t do more than three or four trials at once. If we do even 10 trials, their approach is just to choose at random and figure that they’ll get enough treats by chance to make them happy without even thinking!

A Mind of Her Own

Of course, in the other laboratories, the subjects are actually working for at least part of their daily rations, so they are definitely more motivated; our birds work for these special treats instead. Griffin is doing quite well on all his tasks, but Athena is more erratic. Some days she’s almost perfect; other days she acts as though she’s never seen the task before in her life. She seems to be having fun either way—as though she enjoys both getting her treats and watching us get more and more frustrated.

Recently, she’s taken the “game” to an entirely different level. She can say some color labels although, again, only when she wants to. So if she has to say “yellow” to get some corn, you can bet that she is going to do so! Her favorite trick now is to watch us show her color-x and say “Match color-x”—and then she says color-y and grabs at the y-colored pompon! We don’t want to discipline her, because we do want to encourage her to label the various colors—and she is being quite clever!

As her behavior is not very good for the bottom line of our data sheet, we don’t give her a treat, but we do praise her and tell her that, yes, that is color-y, but then ask if she can now match color-x. Many times, she is happy simply to have grabbed a pompon and can care less about the treat; other times, she is willing to choose appropriately the second time she’s asked. We are hoping that by watching Griffin she will become more motivated to work appropriately. We’ll see where this all goes, but the bottom line is that we know we have a smart bird—just definitely not one who cares to follow directions!

2 thoughts on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: When Parrots Speak Their Mind…Or Not

  1. I find the behavior of Athena fascinating, as it seems to match my female African Grey Congo. I’ve associated my parrots behavior with that of a female, but I’m not a scientist in this field. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting how long Athena keeps displaying this particular behavior.

  2. RE: “We’ll see where this all goes, but the bottom line is that we know we have a smart bird—just definitely not one who cares to follow directions!” I think most or all parrot owners learn this about their birds before too long, they have minds of their own which to me is amazing. Even my two budgies display evidence of basic independent thought, strategizing and awareness.

    But it’s good to see these articles appearing on the Lefeber website. They help us non scientist parrot owners know we aren’t imagining anything about our bird’s smartness and even “humanity.”

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