Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Griffin Speaks His Mind

Griffin & Referential Communication: the Upside and the Downside

Sharing one’s life with a parrot who not only means what he says but also understands human speech has definite advantages. African grey Griffin can tell us when he wants to go back to the cage (“Wanna go back”), to sit with us during down-time (“Wanna go chair”), or hang out during clean up (“go s—ink”). He often lets us know when he wants to work by his a request for a treat (“Wanna nut”) and is learning to ask for juice, which we are using for additional studies on Piagetian liquid conservation.

Griffin occasionally asks for apples or almonds (“banerry” and “corknut”—he learned Alex’s terms), sometimes for his cooked “grain” or other fruits and vegetables. Unlike most parrots, he doesn’t like typical toys so, although he’ll identify various materials and objects, he rarely asks for them. Still, his ability to communicate does make both of our lives easier. He can make his wants and needs known, and we don’t have to guess at his desires.

He understands a lot more, however. We can tell him and he understands that he has to “wait” for us to use hand sanitizer before picking him up, to take off our outdoor shoes to avoid tracking in outside dirt, or for his cooked grains to cool before eating. He doesn’t like to be left alone, and usually protests with squawks or “come here!” when we start to head out of the lab, but if we say we’ll be “right back”, or “back in an hour”, or even “I’ll see you tomorrow”, he calms down fairly quickly. Sometimes, however, his understanding of human speech causes problems.

Understanding Words, Not Just “Parroting”

Like most companion animals, he really does not like trips to the veterinarian. We can’t blame him—getting poked and prodded and having blood drawn, or occasionally getting a shot, is hardly fun. In fact, he finds just the mention of medical care stressful. Griffin has learned the terms “vet”, “veterinarian”, and even her name (“Marge”); he’s also learned a bit of spelling, so we can’t use “v-e-t”, even if we are talking about an appointment in the future: He begins to shake and will likely chew off some feathers overnight. We now are very careful to speak about “she who must not be named”…the phrase seems long enough that he can’t make the association!

We also learned recently that he understands more about numbers than we thought. For many years, he’s been able to identify shapes, using “one-, two-, three-, four-, six- and eight-corner” (a seven-sided object is kind of weird, so we never use it, and for some reason—probably the difficult consonant structure—he refuses to say “five”). He can also identify numbers of “clicks”, and sometimes practices on his own, clicking and then reporting on the number of clicks he’s produced. We’ve used this understanding to let him know when we’ll be back if we are gone longer than overnight. So, on Friday evenings, I’ll usually say something like “I’ll be gone for two days; I’ll be back on day three.”  He seems to understand. In December, I had a long trip to Europe, and I told him I’d be back on “the eighth day.” I wasn’t really sure he could associate that many days with the actual number label but figured that he knew that “eight” referred to a large amount and that he’d understand that I’d be gone awhile. Well, he definitely understood more than I expected!

My flight home from Amsterdam was horribly delayed (we even had to layover in Canada to refuel!), I missed my scheduled connection in Philadelphia, and by the time I got home and got to bed, after being up for most of 27 hours (naps on planes don’t really count!), there was no way I was getting up early the next morning to go into lab. I texted my lab manager and students, made sure that the birds would have adequate care, and tried to catch up on sleep.

I wasn’t totally surprised when I got the “cold wing” upon my eventual entrance a day late—Griffin often does that when I’ve been away for any length of time. I was, however, taken aback when the students told me that he had been completely, totally, uncooperative the day that I was supposed to have returned: that he wouldn’t come out of his cage, that he bit a student who tried to get him out (one of his favorite students, no less), and just glared at everyone all day! See a picture.

He clearly had connected the label “eight” and a specific number of days. He expected me to arrive, I wasn’t there, and he knew something was amiss. Remember, in the wild, if a flock member doesn’t return when he or she should, such an absence usually means the bird has been eaten by a predator or has permanently left for another flock. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given all that I know about parrot intelligence, but … I guess I’ll have to try out something else the next time I travel!

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.

3 thoughts on “Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Griffin Speaks His Mind

  1. Mitch Rezman says:

    Not surprising – Our female Senegal Peaches is a different bird when I’m not around according to my wife and friends who are in the room with the bird before I enter it.

    I’ve known birds can keep time as accurately as a Rollex and with new evidence about avian neuron density I think they are able to calculate not the 8 days but the total number of melatonin cell pulses required for 192 hours – or x minutes or seconds.

    Peaches who spent 7 years in a rescue and never fledged is now flying – I have a small stand in our front bedroom where I dress – She can now fly southbound out the door, do a 180 and fly north to her cage top.

    I’m attributing that to her building “maps” in her head

    keep up the great work

  2. Charles Upsal says:

    My dog was put down on Columbus Day after suffering osteo sarcoma. Gandolf my timneh still whistles and asks “Toby where are you, do you want to go out?” every morning.

  3. J Jager says:

    Most of the speech my African Grey has learnt is from comprehension. There are some practised linguistic acquisitions . What interests me he doesn’t say I love you but responds with kiss sounds and dove calls when I tell him I love him.

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