Avian Expert Articles

Parrots Can Play Mind Games

The Best Laid Plans…

Nonscientists think that research always goes according to plan, that nothing unexpected ever happens. Of course, anyone who lives with a parrot might know otherwise, and that person would be correct. It’s not a common occurrence, but every once in awhile, our birds surprise us, and although many times the surprise provides exciting insights into their intelligence, occasionally the surprise is a bit less pleasant. African grey parrot, African gray

On the exciting side, we found, for example, that Alex learned the label “carrot” by asking us what we were eating, and “orange” by asking us its color (Pepperberg, 1999). He was able to transfer his understanding of the concept of “absence” from the lack of either similarity or difference in the attributes of two objects (Pepperberg, 1987) to the total absence of a numerical set — a limited concept of zero (Pepperberg & Gordon, 2005).

Athena, our youngest, never having been trained on the label “water” (although she heard us talk about it as we refilled her dishes every morning), reminded us one day — by uttering a very close approximation — that we forgot to replace her water bowl after lunch. Griffin would often produce labels after listening to our training sessions with Alex, even if he had never been trained himself. He learned labels such as “seven” and “eight” that way.

On the less pleasant side, both Griffin and Alex (we think Griffin learned from Alex) sometimes show us that they are finished with sessions by giving us all the wrong answers and carefully avoiding the correct ones — something that they could not do just by chance — it’s just not statistically possible! So, for example, Griffin, who knows his colors quite well, might refuse to label a green cup, calling it “yellow”, “orange”, “rose”, and “blue”— and then repeating all the erroneous color labels. Interestingly, however, we were able to use those data to suggest a level of intentionality and possibly consciousness in Grey parrots (see Pepperberg, 2012).

IMG_2121Most recently, however, Griffin really outdid himself. We are doing a study on various forms of choice, and usually he gets to choose between things like a nut (clearly a treat) or a dried berry (something he likes, but not as much), or between things like the nut or a raw carrot (which he hates), between combinations like a nut or a nut and a carrot (does the carrot make the nut with which it is paired less appealing?) or sometimes between one or two nuts.

The choices are presented in small metal cups that are placed on a tray, and he really likes these sessions because he always ends up with some kind of treat. Unfortunately for him, however, we also had to put in some control choices one morning — so his choice was between one or two carrot pieces. He looked in one cup and then the other, grabbed a cup, banged it furiously on the tray — and then threw first one cup and then the other cup at the poor student presenting the choice. Fortunately, the student was able to duck. I’m guessing neither the student nor Griffin is looking forward to the rest of these control trials!


Pepperberg, I.M. (1987b). Acquisition of the same/different concept by an African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus): Learning with respect to categories of color, shape, and material. Animal Learning & Behavior, 15:423‑432.

Pepperberg, I.M. (1999). The Alex Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Pepperberg, I.M. (2012a). Emotional birds—or advanced cognitive processing? In Emotions of Animals and Humans: Comparative Perspectives S. Watanabe & S. Kuczaj, Eds., Springer.com

Pepperberg, I.M. & Gordon, J.D. (2005). Numerical comprehension by a Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus), including a zero-like concept. J. Comp Psychol.119: 197-209.

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