Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Athena’s Antics

If you read last month’s blog, you know that our youngest bird, Athena, can present some interesting challenges to our research. She’s quite a handful, and we sometimes joke that she doesn’t have an “off switch.”

Athena’s Exploits

For example — during our birds’ lunch break, after eating, when Griffin usually takes a short nap or quietly preens, Athena spends her time playing with toys and squawking at the top of her lungs. She’s not just super-active; she’s also really smart. The first paper to which she contributed, when only about a year old, has recently been accepted for publication. I’ll write about that in a future blog. Sometimes, she uses her intelligence in ways that are pretty challenging in terms of acceptable behavior.

Could This Be Deception?

In one instance, she acted in way that could be interpreted as deceptive. She knows she is not allowed to chew buttons off of human shirts, but she always tries to do so when a new student enters the lab. We assume that she figures that the new student might not know the rules and would let her get away with such behavior. In one such instance, she had been thwarted several times, receiving brief “time outs” for her attempts at this destructive activity.

When we again brought her back to the student, she sweetly asked for a “ring,” pronouncing the label quite clearly. We were thrilled, and quickly gave her one of her favorite nylon toys. She happily started to work on it and the student became engrossed in her reading, probably the detailed description of an upcoming experiment. Human and bird both seemed fine. We were just about to praise Athena for her good behavior when we noticed that she actually wasn’t chewing on the ring any longer. She had carefully positioned it, centered on a button, so that it looked like she was playing with the ring…but had gone to work on her more favored button target!

A New Way To Gain Attention

This week she wasn’t deceptive, but rather seemed to be using her intelligence to throw a tantrum. The background to the story is that she has several foraging toys. We usually fill these each day with bits of dried pasta, shredded wheat, or sometimes oat cereals. She has learned to twist, turn, pull, push, etc. whatever is needed in order to get these treats. Interestingly, the same treats are mixed with her other dry food in bowls attached to her cage, but she seems to prefer to “work” in order to get them. The technical term for such behavior is “contra-freeloading,” and I may write about that sometime soon, too.

This week was the end of summer session at Harvard, and the students were completely preoccupied with their final class presentations; no one had had time to fill the foraging toys. For awhile, Athena seemed content simply to eat out of her bowls. Then, all of a sudden, the contents of a food bowl came crashing onto the floor. Athena had finished all the treats and, frustrated that we weren’t attending to her squawks (she hasn’t yet learned English labels for her treats), she obviously decided that actions would speak louder than (non) words. She surprised us by figuring out how to reach under the cup and unscrew its moorings. This allowed her to rotate the cup in order to dump its remaining contents! That certainly got our attention.

All I can say is that there is never a dull moment, even when we are not actively engaged in research.

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.