Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Catering to Parrots’ Tastes

What We Do for Science…and for Our Birds!

The story starts out with a paper on Piagetian liquid conservation that was just accepted for publication (more on that study in an upcoming blog). The success of the experiment relied on the ability of our parrots to choose and drink from the one container of two that held a bit more juice than the other. For example, the equivalent of a choice between about less than a fourth versus a half of a teaspoon of liquid. Given that our birds value juice as a major treat, to which we limit access (we joke that it is like “crack cocaine” for them — a concentrated sugar source they can access without any real work), it wasn’t all that surprising that they eagerly looked forward to these sessions.

We would even switch around flavors of the organic juices that we used, so that they wouldn’t get bored by any one type. Griffin, Athena, Pepper, and Franco (two other Greys who sometimes participate in our studies) all succeeded, comparing very favorably with young children. However, one of my colleagues, despite liking the paper as it was, suggested that we do a second, related experiment, comparing the birds with a number of different great ape species who have also been tested. It seemed like a terrific idea, and we recently began the second study.

A Parrot With an Unexpected Problem

Griffin was happy to participate; Athena, however, was another matter. In the intervening months since we had finished the first experiment, we’ve had to give her a supplement to regulate her hormones. The supplement tastes pretty awful, so we decided to give her some yummy juice after each dose both as a reward for taking her meds and to give her a more pleasant aftertaste. Unfortunately, our ploy backfired: What happened was that she started to associate juice with the nasty-flavored supplement, and began to refuse to drink any of the organic commercial juices we provided. What could we do?

A Student Finds An Unconventional Solution

Fortunately, one of my students, Francesca, noticed that Athena still likes to eat the fresh organic grapes we obtain from a local farmers’ market, and suggested that we try squeezing them for their juice. We teased Francesca about how we’d all get into trouble for starting a winery, but decided her idea was worth a try. Lo and behold, Athena slurped up that first batch! So, Francesca now spends a certain amount of time every other day, peeling and squeezing organic grapes, and filtering the resultant juice.

I’m sure that wasn’t what she had in mind when she applied for a fellowship to work in the lab this summer…and thankfully it really doesn’t take all that much of her time, allowing her actually to perform this and other experiments with the birds. But the experience does indeed demonstrate that, on occasion, what we have to do to get data from our birds can involve somewhat unconventional activities — and that work of this type doesn’t ever get the appropriate credit in those published papers!

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.