Avian Expert Articles

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Research Lab: “What’s Mine is Mine and What’s Yours is Mine”

African greyThe phrase in the title is often considered a parrot’s mantra and an inside joke for those of us who share our lives with feathered companions — “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.” A parrot always wants the one pen we are using, or decides that the one sheet of paper we are perusing is critical for its well-being. That trait — endearing or frustrating depending upon one’s point of view — actually has its roots in natural behavior in the wild, and can, in fact, be used to our advantage.

Let’s start with the behavior in the wild. Many animal species live in social groups — flocks, pods, troops, herds. Parrots, like all such group-living species, use their social community as a source of information, and engage in large amounts of social learning. A young bird needs to learn what is good to eat and what to avoid, how to behave when it hears an alarm call, how to distinguish a predator from a nonthreatening species so it doesn’t spend all of its time hiding and has time to eat and rest. It has to learn to comprehend, to produce, and the appropriate context in which to use various affiliative and aggressive calls, and how to attract a mate. It learns all these behavior patterns — and many more — from watching and listening to the behavior of older individuals.

African grey
Alex the African grey investigates Dr. Pepperberg’s mug.

Our Parrots Role Models

So, what does this mean for a companion animal? Well, clearly, we humans are now its flock and the models for its behavior. That pen you are using…by interacting with it, you are showing the bird that it is something that is fun to handle, that it is an important part of your routine—the way an older bird might interact with an object in nature that it will use in some manner—even though that is not your intention. That piece of pizza you are eating or the iced tea you are drinking…you are showing the bird that these items are safe and good to ingest—the way a parent might introduce a novel food item—even though you really do NOT want your birds to eat these things!

When your phone rings and you quickly bring it up to your face…you are showing that a particular sound made by this weird object is extremely attractive and quickly gets your attention—the way a flock member might use a contact call to bring other birds near, or the way a mate might use part of a duet to call to its significant other. So it really isn’t any surprise that our birds are curious about these aspects of their environment, wish to emulate our actions, and investigate the objects that hold our attention.

Using Modeling To Our Advantage

We can now see how we can use this trait to our advantage. It’s a bit like “reverse psychology,” in the sense that we can pique a bird’s interest in an object if we make believe that the item is something that we cherish and maybe initially don’t wish to share. So, you want your bird to eat its vegetables Maybe you need to eat more veggies in front of them! Doesn’t mean that they will automatically like that carrot (each of our birds has specific likes and dislikes, and we accept that some things might just really taste terrible to them), but at least they are a lot more likely to try it. Want to introduce a new toy? Couldn’t hurt to put it on your desk and have the bird watch you fiddle with it for awhile. Again, it may not turn out to be their favorite plaything, but they are likely to investigate it much more quickly.

Parrot behavior really isn’t a mystery. You just have to think about how evolutionary pressures have shaped a creature that is only one or two generations out of the rain forest. Unlike dogs, they haven’t been domesticated; they’ve only been tamed.

One thought on “Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Research Lab: “What’s Mine is Mine and What’s Yours is Mine”

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to our newsletter