Avian Expert Articles

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Show Remorse?

African grey parrot
Image by Beg Inner/Pixabay

An important and controversial issue in the world of scientists who study animal behavior and animal cognition is whether we err in our analyses by anthropomorphizing our subjects or go too far in the opposite direction—when we actively avoid drawing parallels so as to be considered completely dispassionate in our explanations of what we describe. A good discussion of this issue is in Mama’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal—he evaluates in detail the behavior patterns he has seen over a lifetime of research on social interactions among nonhuman primates, and argues that the emotions of nonhumans do not really differ from those of humans.

Unlike de Waal, I study cognitive processes rather than behavioral interactions between individuals and among groups; I’ve also studied only a single species, and only a few individuals of that species. Recently, however, the well-respected journal Behaviour asked scientists to submit anecdotal observations of nonhuman actions that suggested possible comparisons with those of humans—instances that would suggest that nonhumans could engage, for example, in deception. My students and I came up with a few of these anecdotes, and that led me to think about other human-like behaviors I had witnessed.

One such incident, just this week, led me to think about remorse, and when I shared the incident with a former student, she shared one with me. Again, these are single anecdotes, but maybe with enough such anecdotal evidence a case could be built for further study.

The Big, Bad Bite

So…here’s the background for my incident. At the moment, Griffin’s arthritis is really acting up, and even the laser treatments we provide don’t seem to be helping all that much. (NB: Our vet is exploring other possibilities.) I was sitting next to his cage, watching him eat from his bowl, when I saw him slip….he was hanging by one foot, couldn’t right himself no matter what he tried. So I went over, stuck my hands into the cage to support him, lifting him so he could perch properly. He did, and as I moved away, he struck out, biting deeply into my hand. I don’t know if he was startled, thought my hand was the perch, or angry because I hadn’t helped immediately.

I’ve been working with parrots for over 40 years, and have been bitten many times, but this was the deepest puncture wound I’d ever received. It wasn’t even bleeding that much—no slicing, just deep. All I could do at the time was rub in hand sanitizer. (BTW—I am now on antibiotics, so it was indeed serious.) I showed it to Griffin, and he raised his foot in his “pick-me-up gesture”—and then he sat with me for the next hour, not even preening, just looking—and I have to say with what appeared to be a very sad expression—alternatively at my face and the small drops of blood coming from the wound. All the time, he was favoring his sore foot…but he didn’t ask to go back to his cage, he wasn’t preening the way he usually does when on my hand; he just sat with me until it was time to make dinner.

Now, not all of my parrots act remorseful. If Athena bites, it is because you’ve done something she thinks is unacceptable, and she actually looks quite satisfied with herself afterward. Alex knew to say “I’m sorry” when he did something to upset the humans in his life—he had learned that the phrase would quickly defuse our anger or annoyance. I don’t think he really understood the meaning of the phrase—he rarely if ever exhibited contrition, often repeating the behavior that had triggered our displeasure in the first place. Sometimes he did behave properly afterward, but either way, he really knew that the phrase worked to calm his human companions. Griffin doesn’t know to say “I’m sorry”—but I think he really was remorseful.

One of my students shared a similar incident about Griffin. He takes a long time to warm up to new students, and only a very few of them earn his trust enough to be allowed to pop his quills and give him tickles with their fingers. Sometimes, however, he’ll show that he’s beginning to like them by giving them a “kiss”—a gentle nibble on their nose at the end of their shift. Once, early on in this student’s tenure in the lab, he slipped off his cage while trying to give her a kiss, and grabbed onto what he could—her nose—he didn’t bite through (thankfully!), but it was a definite wound. However, as soon as she got the bleeding to stop, he requested, for the first time ever, to “Go chair” (to sit alone with her) and also for first time he let her give him finger tickles. She said it did seem to be his way of apologizing, and that it was worth missing her next appointment to stay longer!

So…these incidents may simply be anecdotes, or maybe they provide real insight into the mind of a Grey parrot. I’ll let you decide!

10 thoughts on “Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Do Parrots Show Remorse?

  1. My umbrella cockatoo, Gracie, was screeching one day when my friend, Ellen, was visiting. Ellen went over to her and scolded her, to which Gracie replied,”I’m sorry.”

  2. Rio was a Biter when I 1st got him, plus he was Cage Aggressive! No matter what I tried to do, he’d bite. One time he bit so hard, blood did come out quite a lot!! I had to Close his door & do a time out kind of thing. He didn’t used to have remorse in the beginning, but after this happened, I did notice he did seem a little remorseful!! Believe it or not, but after that I started to used that “face” you do when someone hurts you!! Somehow it worked, he stopped biting me!! Sometimes I just don’t think he realizes how hard he bits, as I will say stop it’s too hard, so he would stop!

  3. I was bitten the other day by my alpha Grey and if you ask him what did you do to Mommy, he said a Owie.

    1. My Alexandrine, was keen to get into the container of nuts etc, i wasnt quick enough in taking the lid off and out of his impatience he bit my finger, not hard, but enough to feel it…Boo stepped back and said “owe” and didnt go near the container…i do believe they know what they have done.

  4. Whereas, I believe that some parrots can feel emotions and react accordingly, however, I doubt they can be remorseful when it does something that does not affect them personally. That does not mean they can’t sense something is wrong. It does not mean they can’t be upset over the loss of a mate or the loss of a nestling.

  5. That’s so awesome of Griffin. I thought CAGPs realized when they’ve hurt you or upset you. Raphaelle, always
    pushes the envelope further and further to try and get her way. I do have immense amounts of patience with her, but
    there’re times when I’m rushed or just tired, then she gets the third degree. Raphaelle has to listen how many things
    I do for her, I always go out of my way to give her the very best, I allow myself to be second and put her first, and on
    and on. The poor bird just perches and I assume she’s listening, then I leave the room and the next thing I know she
    she starts telling me everything word or sentence I love to hear, the she says, I love you, Mom, and she goes on until
    I go back into the room and tell her that I don’t hate her and I’m not mad, but I’m just rushed or whatever. Then it’s all good again.

  6. I was given a Indian Ring Neck Parakeet a few years ago. At that time I should have asked more questions but there was no time. They were moving and I had one day to make up my mind to take her. So let me make a long story short. Diego likes to live in my kitchen cupboard and hide. I understand that is not good so the cupboard is closed. She bites, as I walk by, as I try to let her out of her cage, when I try to get her to step up. Actually it doesn’t matter when but I don’t feel she has any remorse. Personally I think she is the boss. When she doesn’t want to step up I can’t force her. Really, I don’t trust her. I have had birds my whole life, small birds but never one like this. I feel like I am over my head. If you can direct me to some help I would appreciate it from the bottom of my heart

  7. Hannah definitely shows remorse. She too , like Alex, quickly learned the concept of I’m sorry when I said it to her many years ago. She will say it with deep emotion when she knows I am upset. She will also use it when there is arguing at home , letting us to know to say ‘Sorry’. Hannah will also use it too to manipulate me….if she is having cage time and wants to be out, she will repeat it (no remorse) over and over as her get out of jail! Greys are amazing beings! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletter