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Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: When Favored Treats Aren’t Enough

African grey parrotAs I’ve noted previously, we always try to give our birds specific, task-related items as rewards when they respond correctly to our queries. So, for example,  if they identify a piece of wood, they get to chew it up. Same for pieces of paper and such. Ditto if they give the correct color or shape—they get to chew on the green ring or the four-corner piece of wool. The point of such rewards is to ensure that the birds understand the one-to-one correspondence between the label they are using and the object that they receive. With this procedure, they quickly see that their labels are meaningful and can be used to obtain objects and alter their environment.

Sometimes, however, we just can’t give them these so-called “referential” rewards. Maybe the birds are so bored with the toys from extended play, or the objects are too expensive to replace. In those instances, we train them to use the label “want,” so that they can request something else as a reward. In that case, we are still maintaining some reference, as we say things like “You’re right! It’s an X! Now, what do you want?”—and then, within reason, we give them exactly what they request. Again, they see that their vocalizations are meaningful.

Occasionally, the birds are actually directly working for a very desirable reward (e.g., finding a hidden nut) rather than labeling something. In those instances, we try to keep the rewards small enough so that we can fit plenty of trials into a given session before they stop working. Usually, treats like bits of raw cashews or organic crackers are such valued items for them, and they seem like bottomless pits in terms of consumption, that we don’t have any problems getting through the tasks.

Griffin Reaches His Limit

Every once in a while, however, the system breaks down, and if the resulting standoff between bird and humans weren’t so frustrating, it would actually be amusing. We had one such instance when a colleague was visiting and needed to record Griffin saying similar labels (e.g., “cork” versus “corner”) in order to analyze how these utterances differed in terms of various frequency patterns called “formants.” (Each human sound that we—and the parrots—produce is made up of energy bands, called formants, and the relative positioning of the bands, particularly the first and second, can be used to identify that specific sound…such as the vowel in the word “hat” versus that in “hit.”)

A long time ago, my students and I did a similar analysis of Alex’s vocalizations (Patterson & Pepperberg, 1994, 1998), in that case looking at labels that were even more closely related—so-called “minimal pairs” like tea and pea that differed by only one phoneme (a basic or “minimal” unit of speech). The idea for the current study is to see whether Griffin uses the same types of strategies to produce his labels as Alex had used, and whether the more advanced types of analyses now available will provide additional information. The problem was that we needed at least 20 instances of each of the labels that my colleague wanted to study, which meant that we were asking Griffin to say the same things, over and over and over, for several days in a row.

Initially, Griffin was fine. The several microphones in his face didn’t faze him, and he labeled the objects and took them as his reward. Then he began to balk. Understandably—he wasn’t making mistakes, and yet we kept asking the same questions! So, we started bribing him with nuts…either very small pieces after every response, or somewhat bigger pieces after several responses. That worked for a while. Then we had to go to the bigger pieces for every answer. Finally, by Friday evening, he had absolutely had enough: Every time we brought out a new object, even if we showed him a nice big piece of cashew, he would turn away from us and start to preen…or he would state “Wanna go back!” (i.e., to his cage). Clearly, at some point, even his favorite treats just weren’t enough to keep him working at what he viewed as a totally boring task. We didn’t take his picture, but anyone with parrot would have recognized the equivalent of the teenager’s eye-roll that tells a parent, REALLY!!?!?! You’ve GOTTA be kidding!

We really couldn’t blame Griffin—he’s a living organism with his own wants and desires, and we had to respect his wishes. In the normal course of events, we would never push our birds to work when it is clear that their interest in a task has waned. This time, however, because my colleague had only a few days to get all the necessary recordings, we were just hoping that bribes would keep Griffin happy. And they did, but only to a certain extent. I guess that all creatures have their limits.

Patterson, D.K. & Pepperberg, I.M. (1994). A comparative study of human and parrot phonation: I. Acoustic and articulatory correlates of vowels. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 96:634‑648.
Patterson, D.K. & Pepperberg, I.M. (1998). A comparative study of human and Grey parrot phonation: Acoustic and articulatory correlates of stop consonant

Create a Hospitable Backyard Bird Habitat

chocks in nestWhen springtime hits, we see increased activity not only on the human side of the world, but also in the creature, plant, and insect side. Everyone and everything bustles to take in the advantages that warmer weather brings. Things grow beautifully. That’s the wonder of the life we’re blessed with. Grasses and flowers awaken and provide splashes of colors for us to enjoy. Increased activities deliver fresh sights and sounds that those of us who experience weather distinctions welcome emphatically. Of most importance is the rush of new life. And while there are no ends to the new life that emerges, it’s important to take special care to the arrival of nests and the babies that experience their initial growth in them.

I’ve personally have had nests made in interesting places. I’ve had birds form nests in my air vents, inside the lids of grills (sneaking in through the rotisserie holes), under busy decks, and on hose racks alongside houses where I’m dived at by parent birds if I even get too close for their comfort. I’ve even had a nest resting on the hinge of an open window in between the screen and the window. With that, let’s run through a reasonable list of preparatory ideas for the arrival of birds and nests during the busy nesting season.

Help Building The Nest

Some bird lovers want to attract nests to their back yards. For those, some want specific types for various reasons.  For people who have Purple Martins in their hopes, it may be because of the insect controls they bring. For others it’s the beauty of Blue Jays, or the comfort and familiarity of Robins. And others simply love the interaction and shared spaces with one of nature’s great marvels of flight.

It’s important to provide easy access to food. That could be a collection of natural food sources like berries, nuts, and seeds. Additionally, a well-placed feeder can be essential to supplement the diets that you attend to with natural plants. Sources of non-stagnant water are necessary to provide places of refreshment and cleaning.

To create safer locations for nesting birds, it’s perfect to set up manufactured, clean, and roomy bird houses for them. This will help to deter birds from nesting in unwanted places (like air vents and grill lids). If you provide nesting boxes, it’s important to learn simple rules. Various birds prefer their nest boxes facing in different directions. Some of them like the bird houses in shrubs and small trees, while other likes them high. Typically, this is because of the types of insects they eat. Some – like Purple Martins – can build nests in large, multi-celled boxes, while others prefer the single room box. It’s up to you to determine the kind of bird(s) you want in those boxes, and which kind of boxes to provide. When Spring approaches and before you have birds in nests, make sure your houses are clean in every way. If you want to help further, leave the expected materials they use to build their nests in a nearby location. Again, proper research will give you tons of ideas.

Once birds have fallen in love with your back yard accommodations, and have settled in for the nesting seasons, it’s important to keep your natural interest in check. As with us, birds are incredibly focused on the safety of their young ones. If you become too invasive, you may disrupt the process, and worse, encourage the birds to stay away from your yard in the future. That’s no fun.

With all of this preparatory information– and this is by no means a complete guide – you can also help in scientific studies with NestWatch. NestWatch is a data-gathering site hosted by the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology (accessed here). With it, you can use essential online data tools to provide needed information of what’s happening in your backyard habitats that you have carefully created.  Birds and their nesting patterns are always in a state of flux. With new climate issues unfolding, we begin to see changing habits of birds in attempts to maintain the same type of environment they’re historically accustomed to. NestWatch monitors all incoming data to determine changes in the migration and active choices of birds. If a climate change has created a non-effective habitat for a kind of bird (for any reason), their nesting processes begin to fail, which has long-term catastrophic results.

NestWatch is also a deep well of information in regards to types of houses, habitat and habitat preparation, natural and assistive food sources, and many other things. Don’t hesitate to use its wealth of information to help create one of the most exciting backyard thrills that you can sit at, watch, and enjoy for years to come.

Celebrate Your Bird April 11

Jenday ConureToday is National Pet Day—an unofficial holiday celebrated annually on April 11th that encourages all of us to pay our pets some extra attention. It is also a day to commemorate everything that our pets do for us on a daily basis. If you share your home with a feathered pet, companionship can be filled with vocal duets, conversations that loop back over and over (i.g., you find yourself answering, “How are you?” over and over), and adventures in buying the right toy or creating the perfect item for your bird to destroy. Your bird might be your shower buddy, fellow foodie, dance partner or cuddle bug, etc. Take time today to do something extra special for you bird. Buy or make them a special treat or spend some extra time with them. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Buy or build your bird a new toy or treat
  • Take some silly pictures of your pet (or with your pet) and share with friends and family, or update your phone screen
  • Don’t let dogs and cats steal the spotlight—share photos of your bird on social media and use the hashtag #NationalPetDay
  • Help someone in need buy pet food or other items for their pet bird(s)

How do you celebrate your pet? Do share!

Car Safety: Why Your Bird Needs to “Buckle Up”

 

Eclectus close-upThere are many reasons why you might take your bird with you in the car, including to the vet, to a pet sitter’s house, to a bird club meeting, or even just for an outing.  It’s important to know how to transport a bird so both you and your bird arrive safely at your destination.

Noise distraction can be a big issue with some birds (nothing like stating the obvious!). An ear-piercing shriek can startle the best of drivers, potentially causing an accident.  Plan ahead by providing your bird with tasty treats or a favorite toy to distract her. Playing music your bird likes might also help to keep the noise to a minimum. Be aware that a hawk flying overhead or anything else that resembles a predator, such as those orange balls suspended on high wires, can precipitate screaming, so try to block all overhead views.

Physical distraction is a major issue with transporting a loose bird. Many people enjoy having their bird on their shoulder or seat while driving, but this is highly dangerous for you, your bird and other drivers for many reasons. A bird screaming from the back seat can be startling enough. A bird sticking its beak in your ear and shrieking at the top of its lungs is a sure-fire way to drive into a pole or worse!

Any animal moving around in a vehicle can distract the driver, especially one which can get itself into a lot of trouble, like a bird! The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that your risk of being in a crash doubles with looking away from the road for only two seconds. Several states, including Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, have already passed and are enforcing distracted-driving laws aimed at preventing drivers from having animals on their laps or outside of carriers while driving.

Here are two more reasons a bird loose in a car is dangerous.

1. Car stops suddenly. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. If you hit the brakes (or another object) at high speed, your bird will hurtle forward and hit the windshield. Bird dead.  Remember that we wear seatbelts to keep from hitting the windshield! The bird will not have time to spread its wings to slow its forward momentum if you brake suddenly.

2. Airbag hits bird. Airbags exist to cushion us firmly in our seat in case of sudden deceleration.  Airbags expand at up to 200 mph when they sense a crash. Sitting within 10 inches of an airbag is considered dangerous to an adult human. Even humans sitting properly often sustain skin burns or even cracked ribs when an airbag goes off, though this is obviously better than crushing the chest on a steering wheel or going through a windshield. Any bird on a person’s chest or lap when an airbag goes off will be crushed to death against their person. Simple as that. Most cars also have side airbags now, as well, so there are multiple sources of danger for a loose bird. Airbags have been known to injure small children who are not properly restrained.  Imagine what they can do to a bird. Also be aware that airbags give off a considerable amount of corn starch or talcum powder when they inflate, which could choke a bird in close proximity.

dented carAfter An Accident

There are many ways a bird can be injured or escape after an accident. A disoriented driver may forget that their bird is loose in the car and open the door, releasing the bird. Bystanders or emergency personnel who open the car door may also startle the bird, causing the bird to fly away.  A bird can escape through a broken window. In a serious accident, the bird may get injured in the rescue operation if not already injured by the accident itself. There may even be opportunity for someone to steal the bird. Remember that even the tamest of birds may not react as expected in the chaos of an accident.  If you are injured or unconscious, you may not even be aware at the time that your bird is gone.  If you need to be transported to the hospital, rescue workers are not likely going to take a free flying bird, but they may stop to take an animal carrier.

Now that you’ve learned why your precious parrot shouldn’t be loose in the car while you drive, let’s learn the best ways to safely restrain her.

Carriers

The best carriers are sturdy so they don’t collapse easily in case of an accident. Wire cages are generally too flimsy for safe transport. There are a variety of safe carriers available. Unlike cage recommendations at home, you should get the smallest carrier that comfortably houses your bird since in case of rapid deceleration, your bird could get tossed about inside the carrier. The cage should have either no perch or a low perch so your bird doesn’t fall off easily while you’re careening around corners (which you would never do, of course…). The carrier should have a sturdy handle through which a seat belt can be attached. If you need to stop suddenly, an unrestrained carrier could fly through the air, injuring your bird, so the carrier should always be belted in.

Standard kennel carriers are readily available, inexpensive, and airplane-approved. The seatbelt can go through the top handle. Aluminum travel cages are lightweight, but sturdy, and can sometimes be completely knocked down, if need be.  Acrylic carriers come in various sizes and shapes, including macaw size. Some carriers will have built-in feed cups and others allow cups to be clipped on. You can get some idea of the variety of carriers here and their uses:

https://safeforparrots.com/travel-cages/

https://www.perchfactory.com/bird_travel_carriers/travel_bird_carriers_plastic.htm

https://popular.reviews/bird-carrier/

If you choose a clear carrier, keep in mind that your bird may feel vulnerable while you drive, especially if he or she sees another bird flying overhead, such as a hawk flying or crow. Bring along a blanket or cloth to drape over the top of the carrier, which will not only block both the view but afford your bird some sun protection so he or she doesn’t become overheated.

The carrier should always be belted into the back seat, as with a child’s car seat. If the carrier is in the front seat, it could potentially be squashed by an airbag. The second row or back seat of a vehicle is also the safest place to be in case of an accident. All carriers should be labeled with your contact information. Covering the label with clear packing tape will help preserve it. If the carrier is dedicated to one bird, put the bird’s species and name on the carrier in case you get separated.

We’ll finish with two more car safety tips for traveling with birds. First, do not use air fresheners when traveling with birds. They are soaked with essential oils and are toxic to birds. Second, NEVER leave your birds unattended in the car! In addition to the usual warnings about animals overheating in cars, it only takes a moment for someone to break into the car and steal your bird.  A pretty bird sitting in a car is a sitting duck.  Even if you cover the carrier, your bird may scream out, alerting a potential thief, so either someone should stay in the car or the bird should come with you.

 

Amy Hopkins, © 2019. All rights reserved

 

Emotional Like Us: Parrots & Jealousy

blue and gold macawsAs humans, we display a wide array of emotions that reveal our states of mind. It’s quite a sight to witness happiness in full bloom, and equally dismaying to see sadness in action. Of course, those are only two in the wide spectrum of emotions.

Some emotions can be destructive, and some simply annoying. Take jealousy as an example. It’s an emotion that demands attention, can be destructive to both the one who experiences it and the receiving party. But as emotions go, they’re exclusive to the mapping of each individual being. They’re like fingerprint and retinal accuracy unique to the individual. Everyone has retinas, but no one has the exact same one.

The science of jealousy is simple enough. Its inherent basis is in how we feel about people and their actions, our jobs and how we do them, something we own that is special to us, and those we closely love. It is an expression of established relationships and an overstepped imaginary line drawn by ourselves. As a result of instinctive jealousy, a collection of other emotions arises that includes anger, sadness, even depression. For birds, a display of any of these can have terrible results.

Emotional Ranges

Birds (and other living sentient beings) are as capable of emotional range as we are. We accept happiness in birds, and tolerate their occasional bursts of anger. After all, such things are indicative of an existing state of reality that is either pleasing – or not – to the bird. You strive to fix it. So, what happens if your bird is displaying jealousy? Such an emotion requires strong courses of action to alleviate or altogether eliminate the emotion so that all parties can live peacefully.

For exotic birds in your home, an introduction of a new bird, or even another type of pet, that will occupy a bit more of your immediate attention can set off the protective mode of jealousy. Visible results of jealousy could involve a range of aggression toward you or the new animal – or both. This can lead to biting, incessant screeching, and even full frontal attacks. Worse, the bird could internalize and begin to engage in self-destructive behavior such as plucking its feathers (often referred to as FDB, or “feather damaging behavior”), or worse, skin mutilation. Once behaviors get this far, preventing it becomes more difficult.   Therefore, it becomes important to address jealousy in birds long before unnerving behavior degrades beyond help.

Of course, not all birds display jealousy. Some rely on their naturally social instincts to adapt to the introduction of another bird. But should your beautiful bird begin to become despondent over a new addition in your house, any displayed jealousy should be immediately attended to by a practiced set of attempts to help ease the original bird’s disrupted rhythm.

If the new arrival is a love interest, it is important that the new person immediately step in and gain the bird’s attention and trust by lovingly caring, handling, and feeding it. This will go far in helping to alleviate any sense of jealousy in a bird. (Guys and gals, be decidedly careful not to reverse this problem where you spend more time with the bird than with your significant other.) Never punish a bird during any displays of jealousy. You will lose important ground that you and others have worked hard to achieve, all within minutes. Anger is not deterred and thwarted by anger.

With the introduction of a new bird, it’s wise to not house them together. Instead, selected time periods of merging and bonding along with close monitoring will go far in helping the birds to accept each other for the long term-relationship.  Once it seems both birds get along, and you wish to house them together, consider acquiring a new, larger cage for the both of them. Another reason to get a new cage?  If you place a bird in the other’s original cage, a sense of territorial invasion might erupt, thus undoing all of the hard work in getting them to accept each other.  More extreme care in jealousy displays must be employed if dealing with multiple birds (more than two), as two or more might be inclined to vie for the attention of another.

Dissuading jealous behavior among your birds is a tough project. It’s often difficult enough among people; and twice as difficult among our pets as they cannot reason as a human has the ability to do. The internet is filled with resources and hard-gained advice on how to discourage bird jealousy. With a lot of patience, you can help your birds to feel loved and individually special. The fact that you have a bird in the first place already indicates your special qualifications in patience and love.

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Why Study Parrot Cognition?

cockatoo
Many parrot species are endangered in the wild, and because most humans are more likely to want to conserve species with whom they share some commonalities, demonstrating avian intelligence can be incredibly helpful.

When I’m being interviewed by the media, I’m often asked why I study parrot cognition…What is the point? After all, my work doesn’t help to cure or prevent some dreadful disease, or provide the world with some new important invention.

My response, given many times, is that there are other very good reasons to do this work. One reason is to educate owners as to the intelligence of their avian companions, so that the birds can be given the appropriate mental stimulation to keep them happy and healthy. These birds are as smart as at least a 6-year-old child — one wouldn’t lock such a child alone in a playpen with only a few toys and snacks for over eight hours a day and expect the child to be a well-balanced individual!

Another reason is to assist with conservation efforts — many parrot species are endangered in the wild, and because most humans are more likely to want to conserve species with whom they share some commonalities, demonstrating avian intelligence can be incredibly helpful. I’ve also collaborated with therapists to adapt our training techniques to engender communication skills in children on the autistic spectrum. And I often talk with colleagues who are involved in designing various forms of artificial intelligence — who think birds might be good models for teaching AI systems how to learn. However, I also have a somewhat selfish reason — I want to find out just how clever these birds actually are, and more about the continuum between human and nonhuman intelligence. A little history helps to understand my point.

Animals Teach Us

Although Darwin’s concept of continuity was accepted by many biologically oriented scientists during his lifetime, it has taken almost a century for his proposal about the logical sequel to anatomical continuity — i.e., neurological, behavioral, psychological, and mental continuity — to be considered with comparable interest. Only in the late 1960s did scientists begin to accept that many cognitive processes observed and studied in humans might be found in nonhumans (see Hulse, Fowler, & Honig, 1968).

Only more recently has the scientific community accepted that many such processes can be found in non-primates, non-mammals, and even invertebrates. As a consequence of this acceptance, studies of nonhuman cognition have made, and continue to make, major contributions to our understanding of the origins and evolution of human cognitive processes. Specifically, insight into what are likely basic abilities are provided by the comparative study of how widely divergent, existent species — living in ecological habitats and social environment both similar to and different from those of our human ancestors — solve what are nevertheless often comparable problems. Notably, the wider the scope of research, the more species that we find capable of such intelligent action. At a recent international conference for psychological science (ICPS, Paris, March 2019), several symposia, my own included, compared nonhuman primates, cetaceans, dogs, wolves, parrots, turtles, and fish.

Parrots: Similar Smarts

My interest, of course, is in parrots — whose last common ancestor with humans dates from the time of the dinosaurs (Hedges et al., 1996)! Various arguments exist over the extent to which the avian and mammalian lines diverged and how similar evolutionary pressures resulted in what we call “convergent evolution.” For example, in a previous blog, I described the avian brain and why and how it is capable of all sorts of advanced cognition. I emphasized that although the avian brain looks very different from that of mammals, it functions in very similar ways.

Well, we know that the very different-looking but similar-functioning bits of brain that are found in mammals and birds — those bits that are responsible for intelligence — clearly derived from the same dinosaur brain. But did they evolve from the same piece of brain and evolutionary pressures were exerted that made them look different while retaining the same function? Or did they evolve from slightly different pieces, and evolutionary pressures were exerted that make them now function similarly? The real issue for me is the extent to which the abilities these bits subserve actually converge when we look at how well various different species solve similar tasks.

Let’s look at how evolutionary pressures might work to make or keep these functional similarities, whether they derived from the same or different bits. For example, if we look at African grey parrots and chimpanzees, we find the many similarities in intelligence that I have often described — both tend to solve problems at the level of young children (e.g., see figure below). Many similarities also exist in their ecological and ethological environments (Pepperberg, 2018).

They are both what are described as “K-selected”— both species are long-lived. Both have few offspring at any one time that have a relatively long juvenile period during which they continue to learn important physical and social skills from adults or peers. Both species have complex social environments — that is, interact with fairly large numbers of individuals over their lifetimes whom they have to recognize as friend or foe. Both have dominance hierarchies so that they need to learn complex skills such as transitive inference (i.e., “Sam beat up Joe, Joe beat up me — I should therefore infer that I’d better not challenge Sam!).

Both forage long distances each day so that they must have very reliable, rather large cognitive maps of their environment (i.e., information about where to find different sources of food and water and the capacity to update the information about these sources on a regular basis). It’s not too far-fetched to believe that the need to develop abilities to deal with these similar environments exerted similar evolutionary pressures on the ancestors of both of these species — and maybe our own — and that the results were the similarities in intelligence we now observe.

So, even though the study of parrot cognition may not seem as though it is of great use, the results of such studies may have considerable importance: Overall, the field of nonhuman cognition could provide essential knowledge crucial to the overall study of human cognitive processing!

Hedges, S. B., Parker, P. H., Sibley, C. G., & Kumar, S. (1996). Continental breakup and the ordinal diversification of birds and mammals. Nature, 381, 226–229.
Hulse, S.H., Fowler, H., & Honig, W.K. Eds. (1968). Cognitive Processes in Animal Behavior. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Pepperberg, I.M. & Shive, H.A. (2001). Simultaneous development of vocal and physical object combinations by a Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus): Bottle caps, lids, and labels. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115,376-384.
Pepperberg, I.M. (2018). Grey parrots: Cognitive and communicative abilities. In N. Bueno & F. Amici (Eds.), A Practical Guide to Animal Cognition, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cockatiels Are Cockatoos, Too

cockatiel faceYou might have a cockatoo in your home without even knowing it! Yes, your diminutive cockatiel—the most popular pet bird in the US—is related to the much larger cockatoo. Seriously; there are 21 species of cockatoo and the cockatiel, also referred to simply as the ‘tiel,  is one of them. The cockatiel is thought to be one of the earliest offshoots of the cockatoo lineage, and, when you take a closer look at the cockatiel, you’ll start to see the cockatoo connection.

Crest feathers that they can raise up or down? Cockatiels and cockatoos both have them. That adorable way your cockatiel’s cheek feathers cover the side of the beak when he or she is relaxed? That’s a classic cockatoo pose. Cockatiels and cockatoos are also known for their powdery down feathers. If you share your home with a ’tiel or a ’too, you might notice that they leave an “imprint” of themselves if they bump into a mirror or window, or that housing them anywhere near electronics might mean extra dusting.

cockatoo‘Tiels As ‘Toos

After a bit of debate among taxonomists, the cockatiel was ultimately placed in the monotypic subfamily Nymphicinae (a monotypic species is one that doesn’t not include a subspecies). The cockatiel is now classified as the smallest of the Cacatuidae (cockatoo family). The ‘tiel also falls under the definition of parakeet. But before you start thinking of the smaller, commonly colored blue or green little bird—more accurately referred to as a budgerigar, or budgie for short,—know that parakeet simply means “long-tailed, small- to medium-sized parrot.” Interestingly, it is believed that the cockatiel’s decrease in size, compared to others in the cockatoo family, is a morphological consequence and accompanying change of ecological niche, which is the scientific way of saying that a species evolved to match a specific environmental condition.

All said, there are 21 species of cockatoo. They differ from other parrots not only because of their crest, but also because of their colors. The most popular pet cockatoo species are mostly white, and include the umbrella cockatoo (Cacatua alba), Sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita), and Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini). There are also black cockatoos, such as the palm cockatoo ((Probosciger aterrimus), and red-tailed black cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii), as well as gray ‘toos, of which the cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus) is one, along with the gang-gang cockatoo (Callocephalon fimbriatum), even pink cockatoos like the Major Mitchell’s cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) and Galah cockatoo (Eolophus roseicapilla).

Why Parrots Dance & The Music Genre Most Birds Hate

Our response to music is seen in many different ways and on many different levels. Music can induce happiness, sadness, and a multitude of other emotions. It’s why we listen to it. But do animals experience the same type of emotions that we do? The internet is awash with YouTube videos of parrots and other birds bopping along to a song. Of course, a song lyric’s meaning is presumably lost on a parrot, but certainly the music, with its varied sets of beats, harmonies, vocal patterns and other elements, can invoke a behavior in a bird that is often relatable. Plus, it’s easy to recognize that birds themselves employ their own birdsong with which to communicate and to infatuate others of their kind.

Since Darwin, birdsong has been pored over to determine if it is a musically rewarding trait. Overtime, the many neural responses to music has been studied to determine just what the intents actually are, or if birds receive a pleasurable “reward” moment. Without getting into the incredibly complicated testing phases created for a 2012 Emory University study, scientists determined that female birds, when hearing birdsong, responded to the music in much the same way as people do. In short, the same neural pathways that the human brain employs are the same pathways in use with female birds. For male birds, they revealed a different acceptance, which was not as easily determined to be positive, negative, or indifferent. In fact, some songs appeared to make male birds angry.

Birds Dig Music

As to human created music to the ears of a bird, many bird owners are convinced that there is an appreciation to what is being heard and that it is at times displayed in a dance. Common parrot dances consist of pumping and bobbing motions; back and forth movement between spaces, and other various forms of what could be considered a physical response to the music being heard. We can acknowledge that some birds learn to move during a “favored” song because the bird was taught to do so. Many owners simply start a song, begin dancing, which triggers a mimicking response in the bird. Eventually, the same song will “jump start” the bird to “dance” just as the bird was taught to.

Ultimately, there are many stories of birds responding to a particular style of music, even to the point of rejecting a song by behavior recognizable to the owner as a dislike response. Other studies have supported that parrots can be choosy as to the type of music they prefer. Some seem to prefer calm and complex classical music, some calm Pop, while others appreciate louder, more raucous tunes. But it was determined that most, if not all, of the birds disliked the popular electronic dance music. Given human and creature individuality, it’s not surprising that birds exhibited a unique preference to what they were willing to hear.

Another unique but small study gave several parrots an ability to self-select songs. A touch screen was installed in cages that gave the birds easy access to several types of music, which revealed unique preferences. In the course of a month’s time, both parrots selected their personal favorites no less than 1,400 times between them. This study encourages the use of selectable jukeboxes for parrots within their cages to afford them yet another method of self-entertainment.

Much is still unknown about how birds appreciate music. But one thing is sure among owners: their birds seem to like music of some kind – just not harsh ambient electronica.

Can “De-Extinction” Bring the Passenger Pigeon Back?

Passenger pigeon specimen at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Photo by Tim Evanson, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

In nature, things happen in unexpected ways. As change moves forward, one of the unfortunate results is that all manner of biological beings inevitably face extraordinary circumstances against that which have served them well for so long. So long, in fact, that we don’t even have proper history of much of it. As historical data began to accumulate, thanks to the extraordinary interests and feats of a few scientists, we have come to vitally recognize what was -and still is- important to many species in terms of habitat, food, predator safety, and climate. Many once vibrant creatures became extinct due to overwhelming changes that did not allow for the sustaining of that species’ kind. With science, however, extinction could now become a reversible event.

In recent years, a science referred to as de-extinction has become more than a flight of fancy in the minds of scientists, especially biologists. To date, science have produced remarkable tools – all still in their infancy, and all looked upon in various degrees of ethics. “Jurassic Park,” the popular novel and movie series, entertained the concept of reintroducing age-old dinosaurs using DNA extracted from fossils of these ancient creatures and merging them with existing animals likely extended from the lineage of the dinosaurs. However, in actual science, it’s been realized that DNA ages to the point it becomes unusable. That keeps challenging storylines like “Jurassic Park” from becoming reality.

The Great Passenger Pigeon’s Comeback?

In 1914, the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Martha, made it to 29 years of age before her unfortunate death. She had never laid a fertile egg and, therefore, the reality of the passenger pigeon died with her. But now, some 105 years later, the technology of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats…say that fast!) has single-handedly promised a new era of gene-editing that has a wide array of applications and potential solutions – including human disease management – that could play a large role in what is being referred to as “resurrection biology” or, more to the point – “species revivalism.” 

A project known as The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback is in the oversight of Ben Novak, a scientist with an interest in ancient DNA. At the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, Novak learned the process of DNA extraction as well as properly sequencing Mastodon fossils. With his current work at the Long Now Foundation, where he has been employed since 2012, he has helped to further establish the core intent of Revive and Restore the extinct passenger pigeon. 

The five stages of the de-extinction program for the passenger pigeon include:

  1. Comparing the genome of the extinct passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) with that of the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) to assure compatibility.
  2. Identifying the right areas of the band-tailed pigeon genome to edit with CRISPR
  3. Editing the germ-line of the Band-tailed pigeons
  4. Successfully breeding a new generation of passenger pigeons in captivity
  5. Reintroducing the new species of passenger pigeons into the wild, with extensive conditioning to help them survive in the wild and close monitoring

A studied approach to the Passenger Pigeon Project will give you a greater realization of the entire project. In addition, the noble purpose of the necessary revitalization of the ecology of North America’s eastern forests, of which the passenger pigeon is thought to be a vital part, is a sought after effect. You can further explore that here.

In addition to Novak’s active work on the de-extinction of the passenger pigeon, he is equally interested in producing a widely shared and available database of extinct species with complete genome information and genetic mapping, all in the hopes of the de-extinction of other species.

With this new science and its upcoming potential successes, the possibilities for the de-extinction of many birds, including those who most recently became extinct – like the Spix’s macaw, or blue macaw, (Cyanopsitta spixii )–can be realized.

What Is CRISPR?

CRISPR technology was adapted from the natural defense mechanisms of bacteria and archaea (the domain of single-celled microorganisms). These organisms use CRISPR-derived RNA and various Cas proteins, including Cas9, to foil attacks by viruses and other foreign bodies. They do so primarily by chopping up and destroying the DNA of a foreign invader. When these components are transferred into other, more complex, organisms, it allows for the manipulation of genes, or “editing.” Here’s an example of a CRISPR research in action to save the Northern white rhino here.

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Mutual Exclusivity in Parrots—A Special Case of Inference

African grey
African grey Griffin in Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s cognitive behavior research lab

 

In previous blogs I’ve talked about the importance of using “inference by exclusion” (inferring where something can be found after being given information about where it is absent) for examining nonhuman cognition. Many species succeed at the task at some level, but only a few exhibit a very special case of this behavior involving symbolic communication—something called mutual exclusivity (ME). Interestingly, African grey Griffin demonstrated something very much like ME when initially learning his labels.

The term was first coined by Markman (Markman & Wachtel, 1988), but was previously studied by Carey (1978) under the term fast mapping, in experiments to determine how children acquired their early labels. The task is something like the following: A child is shown two toys that s/he can label (e.g., a ball and a block) along with one novel object (e.g., a cherry pitter). The child is asked to give the experimenter the “dax.” Now, the child knows that neither the ball nor the block is ever called a “dax,” so, by exclusion, s/he picks up the novel item, and thereby maps the novel label to the novel object. Shusterman (Shusterman & Krieger, 1984) used a similar strategy to teach sea lions new labels for new objects.

Of course, the extent of mapping is dependent upon context—if a subject is given several of these trials at once, with several new labels (e.g., “dax,”, “glif,” “nep”), and then given all of the novel objects at once and then asked to choose the “dax,” the mapping often isn’t as good as if the original trial is repeated several times; that is, with only one novel object-novel label connection. However, learning with exclusion is often faster than simple pairing of label and object, and is therefore thought to help children expand their vocabulary.

ME also seems to help children eventually learn category labels and labels for attributes of objects—but not in their early stages of acquisition. Interestingly, children often have a very difficult time learning that a specific object can have two labels—here, they initially take ME too far, believing not only that every object has a name, but also only one name. So, for example, they happily label the family pet as a “doggie,” but will vehemently state “No animal…doggie!”, excluding the second novel label. Obviously, at some point, they override this aspect of ME, because all normal children learn lots of labels for each of their objects. And, at that point, ME will then help them learn new attribute labels—e.g., novel colors.

So, when given a yellow block, a blue block, and a vibrant pink block, and asked to give the experimenter the “fuschia” one, few of them hesitate in their choice…not only do they know that all the objects are blocks; they also know the referents for yellow and blue, and thus use ME to infer that the novel vocalization had to refer to the color label for the novel attribute. Furthermore, if later asked if “fuschia” is a color, shape or a material, they say it is a color.

So, how does Griffin fit into all this? Well, his label training differed a bit from that of Alex the African grey. When I started working with Alex in 1977, I didn’t know anything about ME (it was just beginning to be studied in children), but I figured that if I wanted him to learn object labels, I’d best start with items that had very few other attributes, such as color and shape. So, for example, “paper” referred to pieces of a white index card, “wood” to uncolored tongue depressors, and “hide” to amorphously shaped pieces of rawhide. He had no problem learning these labels (Pepperberg, 1981).

When it came time to teach color labels, I dyed several objects with one shade of food color, and then we modeled “What color?” with responses of “green paper,” “green wood,” so that the attribute—the color green—was an additional label rather than a second, separate label, and that two items with different object labels had only that one particular novel attribute in common. Again, Alex had no trouble learning color labels and, in the same way, shape labels (Pepperberg, 1981, 1983). By the time Griffin came on the scene, however, all the various objects in the lab came in all sorts of colors and shapes, and we decided to see if that made any difference when teaching him his labels.

Therefore, Griffin learned labels for objects by seeing several differently colored versions of the same item—e.g., green, blue, yellow wooden sticks or pompons—and humans responding to the questions “What matter?” appropriately. He was able to infer that, because the various groups of wood or wool had different color, but common material, attributes—those materials were called “wood” or “wool.” And when we taught him color labels for a group of variously colored but otherwise identical cups, he also learned to respond to “What color?” with those color labels. So far, no problem. But what would happen when we tried to get him to learn attribute labels not as additional, but as alternate labels, for the various items he could already label? Specifically, what would happen if we showed him a woolen pompon and asked, “What color?” instead of the usual “What matter?”

ME then came into play: Indeed, when asked “What color?” for an item for which he already had a label (“wool”), he at first ignored the query, rejected the color label, and responded “wool” (Pepperberg & Wilcox, 2001) even though he knew the appropriate color label! And he simply wouldn’t learn the label “cup!” Just like the young children who initially used ME to exclude “animal” for a dog, it took months of training to get Griffin to understand that an object could be both “green” and “wool,” or “blue” and “wood”—and likewise with shape and novel object labels.

Eventually, of course, Griffin, again like children, fully understood how objects could be categorized with respect to various different attributes, and now is as competent as was Alex with respect to labeling all these attributes (Pepperberg & Nakayama, 2016), and better than even 5-year-old children on physical tasks of inference by exclusion (Pepperberg et al., 2018). However, it was quite exciting to find that the path of label acquisition, including ME, could be so similar for species that are so evolutionarily distant!

 

References

Carey, S. The child as word learner. In M. Halle, G. Miller, and J. Bresnan (Eds), Linguistic Theory and Psychological Reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Markman, E.M., & Wachtel, G.F. (1988). Children’s use of mutual exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words. Cognitive Psychology, 20, 121-157.

Pepperberg, I.M. (1981). Functional vocalizations by an African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Zeitschrift fiir Tierpsychologie, 55, 139-160.

Pepperberg, I.M. (1983). Cognition in the African Grey parrot: Preliminary evidence for auditory/vocal comprehension of the class concept. Animal Learning & Behavior, 11, 179-185.

Pepperberg, I.M., Gray, S.L., Cornero, F.M., Mody, S., & Carey, S. (2018). Logical reasoning by a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)? A case study of the disjunctive syllogism. Behaviour DOI:10.1163/1568539X-00003528.

Pepperberg, I. M., & Nakayama, K. (2016). Robust representation of shape in a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Cognition, 153, 146–160.

Pepperberg, I. M., & Wilcox, S. E. (2000). Evidence for a form of mutual exclusivity during label acquisition by Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus)? Journal of Comparative Psychology, 114, 219–231.

Schusterman, R.J., & Krieger, K. (1984). California sea lions are capable of semantic comprehension. Psychological Record, 34, 3-24.

Markman, E. M., & Wachtel, G. F. (1988). Children’s use of mutual

exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words. Cognitive Psychology,

20, 121-157.

Markman, E. M., & Wachtel, G. F. (1988). Children’s use of mutual

exclusivity to constrain the meanings of words. Cognitive Psychology,

20, 121-157.

Pepperberg, I. M., & Wilcox, S. E. (2000). Evidence for a form of mutual exclusivity during label acquisition by Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus)? Journal of Comparative Psychology, 114, 219–231.

Schusterman, R.J., & Krieger, K. (1984). California sea lions are capable of semantic comprehension. Psychological Record, 34, 3-24.

 

It’s Cold Outside! Tips to Keep Your Bird Safe & Warm

A definite chill is in air — temperatures are estimated to be as low as 40 degrees below zero this week in the Midwest. In fact, Chicago and other cities will be colder than parts of Antarctica, Alaska, and the North Pole! In these weather extremes, staying warm indoors is a must, and we must make sure we take our pet birds into consideration when seeking relief from the cold so that everyone can be safe and comfortable at home.

Keep The Warm Air In

If your bird is accustomed to a room with a view, he/she might have to forgo watching the great outdoors until the weather warms up. Home experts recommend closing the curtains and blinds to keep heat from escaping through the window. And locking windows can further seal out cold air. Offer your bird something else to gaze upon in the interim — draw or paint a picture for your bird to admire (or scrutinize!) or let him/her watch an animated feature or nature documentary on TV.

Another trick from home designers is to reverse the direction of ceiling fans, so that the blades turn clockwise and circulate warm air from the ceiling area down into the room. Here’s a handy link on how to set your ceiling fan to a “winter” setting. Keep in mind that having a bird in the home, even one with a winger-feather trim, means being extra diligent in making sure your bird doesn’t collide with a ceiling fan while it is in use. Even when not in use, play it safe and deter your bird from becoming accustomed to hanging out on a ceiling fan.

Know Your Heat Source

When faced with frigid weather, experts recommend having an alternative heat source other than using a home’s electric heater in case the heater goes out. From space heaters, oil heaters, to traditional furnaces, make sure the heat source you use is bird-safe. Here’s a detailed guide of heating options from Amy Hopkins of The Parrot Club that will help you navigate heating your home. And while your bird will appreciate a little warmth, don’t blast your bird with direct heat, and keep heating cords well away from beak’s reach.

Offer Immune Supportive Foods

Staying warm can also mean offering a little more food than usual, because the cold makes us burn calories faster. Opt for healthy selections , and keep in mind that this is also a good time to up your bird’s Omega 3 fatty acids food intake. Omega 3 fatty acids are important for immune health as well as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health.

Take Advantage of the Downtime

If the weather is severe enough in your area, you’re likely not going anywhere until the polar vortex blows over. Make the most of this extra downtime by playing and interacting with your bird. Enjoy a karaoke morning; a lunch date with your bird (share healthy foods like whole-wheat pasta, blueberries, quinoa, etc.); or create a foraging playground for your bird.

Popcorn Nutri-Berries ParrotSnuggle with your feathered friend, pop some popcorn for you, break open a bag of Popcorn Nutri-Berries for your bird, and check out a bird-themed series on Netflix. Beak & Brain: Genius Birds From Down Under (2013); and David Attenborough’s Life series: episode  5.  (2009) are two that come to mind. Online rentals that are worth the download are Winged Migration (2003), a critically acclaimed and award-winning documentary about birds in flight in their natural world; and Life of Birds (1998) — David Attenborough looks to the skies for this series, watching 300 different species of birds as he uncovers the private lives of these clever, engaging conquerors of the air.

Red-Crowned Amazon Parrots Thrive in Los Angeles

Survival is a broad spectrum concept that occupies the minds of many. It’s found in our daily worries like matters of politics, finances, personal health, social status, and mental stability. Needless to say, it likely crosses someone’s mind at least once a day. But survival isn’t an exclusive part of the human kingdom. Survival is also found throughout nature. There are uncountable studies and realizations of survival as it sweeps through the kingdoms of animals, plants, and even our microscopic but vast world of microorganisms. Humans spend a large amount of time and energy developing extraordinary plans to avoid the threats of extinction even though we may never understand the eventual results of such plans. Survival is that important to us.

In the world of animals, many scientists are striving to help preserve the rapidly diminishing populations of endangered creatures. Far too many animals have already disappeared from our planet never to be seen again. Biologists have investigated and developed detailed plans. These plans are formulated to help ease the threat of any extinction. They are crafted to give disappearing animals a decent fighting chance to overcome the challenges of a fast-changing world that often does not consider the destruction of necessary habitats. In the world of birds, many of our beautiful exotic birds have become endangered to the point of probable extinction. In 2018 alone, some have gone forever from us.

 At Home in LA

Conservation ecologists at UCLA have discovered a healthy increase of the red-crowned parrot. This bird is native to Mexico and is considered to be endangered there with an estimated population of 1,000-2,000 birds. However, in Los Angeles a population of feral red-crowned parrots estimated at between 2,000-3,000 is actually considered to be growing. With a habitat as far away in kind as that of their familiar Mexico habitats, these non-native birds don’t seem to mind. They’ve adapted and seem to proliferate as a result. But California is not the only place these birds have adopted as home. Some of these beautiful and determined birds have also been found in Florida and in Texas.

The ecological scientists at UCLA have created a project called Urban Ark with the realization that there’s something about the urban locale that effectively encourages these birds to adapt and to thrive. In their project, they are working to encourage the introduction of other endangered bird species into the cities hoping that newly introduced birds can rediscover a purpose to exist and to thrive, much like the Red-crowned Parrot has.

There are nay-sayers to the Urban Ark concept. In every situation, sometimes the proliferation of a species can bring new and unsuspected havoc upon the native ecological balance in place. For instance, the Northern Pike, a predator fish often found in the freshwater lakes of the northern regions of the United States, and Canada, had been maliciously introduced into a California lake. The Northern Pike proceeded to rapidly decimate the lake’s inhabitants of natural fish, as is its nature. Efforts were eventually successful in eradicating the fish thus restoring the lake’s original balance. This is but one warning against the introduction of non-native species into a strange ecology.

A Blueprint for Conservation

Regardless, the concept of preservation is a noble one and needs to be fully researched. If it works well for the red-crowned parrot, it could help preserve the unnatural decline of some of our other species. Of course, animals and birds are not the only living things that could be helped by an “Urban Ark” design.  There are also plants, fish, and every manner of species in decline. Some of them can be given new opportunity, particularly if they pose no threat to the carefully engineered ecology of the region. The valid argument is that a city itself is a created habitat. It then becomes home to a varied collection of people, who require a varied collection of interests. With that argument, it makes sense that life of all kinds can be made to exist in a region designed to encourage just that. They only have to be able to properly co-exist.

Meet the Kea: The “Mountain Parrot”

There are many species of exotic birds. Many of them have their homes in jungles, and warmer regions like the Amazon rainforests, where the highest quantities of exotic bird species reside. However, there is one exotic bird, a parrot, that lives in the cold and challenging Alpine region of New Zealand. The Kea is its name, given it due to the “keeeaaa” sound of its call and cry. The Kea is a bird that is set apart from others in not only that it’s a cold weather parrot, but also that it’s quite intelligent.

Get To Know The Kea

The Kea is an olive-green colored bird, making it not as flashy as its cousins in warmer climes. Typically, they weigh in around 2 pounds, more or less. They are approximately 19 inches in length. The underparts of their wings are colored a brilliant, dark orange. As to their diet, they are considered omnivorous with a diet of berries, grasses, roots, insects, and the occasional mammal or bird. It is their affinity for sheep that puts the bird at odds with the shepherds that reside in their regions. In fact, the Kea can be brutal in its attack on any unattended sheep. It is this preference that helped to lead the bird into an endangered situation, as farmers and shepherds had made it a point to kill them in large numbers.

Currently, the Kea is listed as Threatened, with an estimated but cautious approximation of 3,000 to 7,000 remaining in the wild. In 1986, the New Zealand government had granted the Kea full protection, making it illegal to harm these unusual parrots.

Kea Brain Power And Status

Many of these parrots have been witnessed creating tools with which to forage and extract their food. They have been filmed moving objects in efforts to reach food, often working together for the common good. In studies, scientists have been consistently wowed by these birds, prompting the scientific communities to label them one of the more intelligent bird species in the world. Due to the bird’s protected status, in order to have a Kea in captivity, a stringent permit system is in place. Today, there are only 65 birds held captive by around 20 permit holders, primarily as insurance against the sudden disappearance of the species in their natural habitat of the mountainous regions.

A Kea Documentary

In 1993, the Natural History New Zealand commissioned the filming of a documentary featuring the extraordinary parrot. Written and narrated by Barry Paine, and directed by Rod Morris, the documentary, Kea – Mountain Parrot, has won several awards for its thorough exploration of the beautiful bird. The full-length video can be viewed on the website NZOnScreen in four parts that seamlessly play through without the need to click through to the next part. You can watch it from here.

Saving The Kea

In 2006, the Kea Conservation Trust was set up to help educate and assist the inhabitants of the regions where the Kea makes its natural home. They also help to acquire funding for research and to assist in the needed conservation efforts designed to keep the bird safe and with us indefinitely. You can read more on the organization here.

The world is an amazing place. Sometimes, we’re quite surprised to learn of the existence of an unusual bird that is as similar in appearance as its warmer climes cousins, but as different in its living arrangements. For a variety of reasons, the Kea is called “the Clown of the Alps.”

Female Budgies Prefer Puzzle-Solving Males & Other Bird-Centric News Stories

green budgies
Male (left) and female budgies

What do birds look for in a mate? For female budgies, problem-solving ability appears to make males more attractive. From a revolutionary stand point, it might serve birds well to opt for partners that show good foraging prowess. See the tricky way researchers got female budgies to ditch their preferred mates to those trained to solve puzzles.

 

T-Rex vs. Finch

Galapagos finch
By Peter Wilton (Large ground finch Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bird aficionados know that even small birds can pack a powerful pinch when they don’t wish to interact. Researchers at the University of Lincoln and the University of Reading studied “bite-“force data” from hundreds of animals species, including reptiles, birds and mammals, and concluded that the Galapagos ground finch’s bite is more than 300 times more powerful than a Tyrannosaurus Rex in relation to its size.

Feather Strong

macaw feathersEver take a close look at one of your bird’s molted flight feathers? If you gently tug at it, you might notice the little barbs that keep the feather together can be unzipped and effortlessly zipped back together, even to point where it will still repel water. For scientists, the feather’s engineering marvel could potentially lead to better adhesives and aerospace materials. Check out this up-close look[l] at the feather’s impressive construction.

Alex the Cockatiel Wins the Internet

cockatiel on cageNeed a little inspiration to film your bird’s cute antics or simply love watching birds do adorable things? Meet Alex the honking cockatiel, who, according to his person, saw his internet fame suddenly explode when his 43-second YouTube video, posted a year earlier, suddenly garnered a million views.

 

 

 

 

 

Birds & Bathing

blue macaw bathingFor birds and humans alike, bathing is one of the essential elements of day-to-day living. And like us, some birds like it, and some tolerate it—some even hate it. If you peruse YouTube, you’ll find more than a few videos of owners and their exotic birds bathing in a variety of ways. Some take showers; some use the running water from faucets in sinks. Still other smaller birds, like parakeets, can find use from clean water bowls.

In the wild, exotic birds typically experience a lot of rain in which to bathe. In a home environment, alternative methods have to be employed to keep companion birds as clean as if they were in the wild getting a natural bath.

There are numerous online articles and videos addressing how to properly tailor the bathing procedures that works for household bird(s). Some may suggest improper methods of bathing, so again, research heavily before adopting any of them. A warm inside ambient temperature is ideal for birds when giving baths. You can use bowls, spray bottles (with lukewarm water), or even your own shower space.

Kim Hannah, owner and caretaker of Exotic Avian Sanctuary of Tennessee (EAST), says that her exotic birds have several ways of keeping clean. Tori, her Moluccan Cockatoo, prefers the use of a fountain. Wizard, her Macaw, enjoys a spray bottle bath. Kim has a Red-Fronted Macaw who likes to bathe in moistened plants, using the moisture to clean her body and feathers. A close friend of Kim has photographed a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk using her outdoor fountain to bathe. You can view her collection of beautiful bird photos at EAST’s Facebook page.

Across the world and within many types of climate, smaller wild birds like cardinals, sparrows, robins, blackbirds, crows, hawks, finches, and others of similar habitats, bathing is an important part of their daily routines. If you’re one who places a birdbath in the yard to accent your landscape, and to provide a nice place for birds to clean themselves, then you’ll often see robust activity at these on days where there is no rain. A few tips should accompany these placements.

First, always be sure to keep the water inside the basin fresh and clean. It’s important given the high probability of transmittable diseases amongst birds. In common gathering places, such as these bird baths, sick birds also perform the same grooming habits as their well counterparts. In so doing, they potentially leave behind the germs that plague birds, germs like pink eye (conjunctivitis), avian pox, and other virulent activity. The basin should be flushed out daily to dispose of dirtied water. Additionally, and, of benefit to you, insect infestations can occur in standing stagnant water. Dirty water can even impact the integrity of the construction of a basin.

You should try to place any baths in shady regions to avoid beginning growths of algae. That’s why daily power flushes are important for the birds in your area. It’s good practice for their well-being.  At least once a week, the bird bath bowl should be scrubbed with a mix of bleach and water (1 part bleach to nine parts water). This will return the basin to a pristine state of cleanliness free from bacterial invaders. Remember, there are also likely other animals in your general area that might find the accessibility of water to be welcome. They can bring a share of unwanted bacteria to a place intended for birds only. The continual cleanliness of these baths will not only bring a pleasing visual aesthetic to your yard, but will go a long, long way in providing a safe place for your neighborhood birds to bathe.

It’s good to know that outdoor basins need only be one to 3 inches in depth. Deeper bowls can be difficult for many birds to properly bathe in.  Alternatively, you could even employ other methods like waterfalls, misters, drippers and fountains, and other sources of moving water. Nevertheless, you should always investigate and keep clean any area with water (standing and moving), and bird gatherings (feeders and baths). If you’re diligent, you can even provide water during wintry conditions by keeping melted water available for wild birds (with electrically-heated, thermostat-controlled bird baths that keeps water from freezing).

How Good is a Parrot’s Long-Term Memory?

yellow crown amazon parrotI’m often asked that question, particularly in regards to parrots that have been or are being re-homed….will they forget previous situations or will their behavior be a constant challenge to a new owner? The answer is not at all simple, and no controlled scientific experiments have actually studied long-term memory in parrots.

In the laboratory, few studies examine avian memory beyond that of a few days’ time, at the most; the majority examine delays of only seconds or minutes. Some research on ravens, however, suggest they can remember the calls of various individuals for at least three years (Boeckle & Bugnyar, 2012); pigeons have been tested foronly up to about six months on memory for objects (Cook et al., 2005)—but no one knows how long their memories might really last.

Certainly, there are plenty of reasons to believe that parrots’ memories are as good as ours. A number of research papers now demonstrate that these birds have brain areas that function in ways very similar to the human cortex (Chakroborty et al., 2015; Jarvis et al. 2005, 2013; Olkawiciz et al, 2016; Gutiérrez-Ibáñez et al., 2018), that they have extremely high neural densities that enable advanced cognitive processing (which requires good memory; Olkawicz et al., 2016), and that even genomic similarities exist between parrot and human brains (Wirthlin et al., 2018). An ongoing study in my lab suggests that a Grey parrot has a visual working memory that outperforms that of young children and is mostly equivalent to that of adult humans (Pepperberg & Pailian, 2017).

Furthermore, many anecdotes exist that claim that parrots can remember situations, other parrots, and people over the course of their long lives. If you do an internet search, you will find many such instances. These instances can, just as for humans, be positive or negative. Thus there are heart-warming stories of parrots that have been reunited with owners after long-term separations.

Why Parrots Need to Remember

In the wild, parrots need to remember the location and navigational paths to food sources that may be available only once a year; thus the need for some form of long-term memory is clear. We also know that parrots that have been abused suffer from PTSD-like symptoms, and respond negatively to whatever situations or objects remind them of the abusive instances. Like humans, these birds can be de-sensitized with appropriate training and care over time. In the wild, memories for triggers such as rare predators could be life-saving; thus the evolutionary reasons for this form of memory are obvious.

What Do Pepperberg’s Parrots Remember?

My own experiences are limited to anecdotes, but support the ideas raised above. For example, fresh organic cherries are available for only a short period once a year, but their appearance would elicit an extremely clear “CHERRY” from Alex. As I’ve noted in a previous blog, Griffin and Athena sometimes produce what we call “hidden labels”—ones we’ve thought they either didn’t have or had forgotten—in similar appropriate situations. Notably, although we rarely mention anything about avian doctors in the day-to-day chatter in the lab, the words “veterinarian,” “vet,” or even my veterinarian’s name triggers anxiety behavior in Griffin and Athena; we have to refer to her as “she who must not be named.”

Griffin, and Alex before him, also seem to remember previous students over decades. Alex, who didn’t like strangers, always made exceptions for tall, blond men; we always wondered if a tall blond male had been involved in his hand-feeding. Griffin makes exceptions only for strangers who somehow demonstrate to him that they have lots of animal experience…so although he happily climbed onto the hands of my colleagues Frans de Waal and Thomas Bugnyar, new students may wait many weeks before he’ll accept them—but he remembers returning students without fail. [Athena, in contrast, likes everyone, probably because she has learned that new people will let her get away with things like chewing on their glasses or jewelry—behaviors that would trigger an immediate time-out from lab regulars.]

What I find of particular interest is how Griffin—and, again, Alex before him—seem to distinguish between student absences that are short versus long—the break point seems to be about six months. Thus students who have left for a long summer vacation will definitely get the “cold wing” upon their return, as I noted in an earlier entry. However, a student who has graduated and then returned after a prolonged absence will immediately be heartily and happily greeted! Last year, a student returned after a five-year absence, and Griffin acted as though it had been about five minutes.

We don’t know any logical reasons for these differences but of course we can anthropomorphize—maybe the “anger” at being abandoned lessens over time, to be replaced with “relief” at the re-appearance of a long-lost friend. In any case, it seems that we should assume that parrot memories are similar to ours, and expect that they will remember people, events, and objects that play important roles in their lives.

Boeckle, M, & Bugnyar, T. (2012). Long-term memory for affiliates in ravens. Current Biology, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.03.023

Chakraborty, M., Walløe, S., Nedergaard, S., Fridel, E.E., et al., (2015). Core and shell song systems unique to the parrot brain. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0118496. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118496

Cook, R.G., Levison, D.G., Gillett, S.R., & Blaisdell, A.P. (2005). Capacity and limits of associative memory in pigeons. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12, 350-358.

Jarvis, E.D., Güntürkün, O., Bruce, L., Csillag, A., Karten, H., Kuenzel, W., Medina, L., et al. (2005). Avian brains and a new understanding of vertebrate evolution. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 151-159.

Jarvis, E.D., Yu, J., Rivas, M.V., Horita, H., Feenders, G., Whitney, O., Jarvis, S.C., Jarvis, E.R., et al. (2013). Global view of the functional molecular organization of the avian cerebrum: mirror images and functional columns. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 521, 3614–3665

Gutiérrez-Ibáñez, C., Iwaniuk, A.N., & Wylie, D.R. (2018). Parrots have evolved a primate-like telencephalic-midbrain-cerebellar circuit. Scientific Reports (2018) 8:9960. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28301-4

Olkowicz, S., Kocourek, M., Lučan, R.K., Porteš, M., Fitch, W.T., Herculano-Houzel, S., Němec, P.  et al. (2016). Birds have primate-like numbers of neurons in the forebrain. Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 113, 7255–7260.

Pepperberg, I.M., & Pailian, H. (May 24, 2017). Evolution of mechanisms underlying visual working memory manipulation: when “bird-brain” is a compliment. Vision Science Society, FL

Wirthlin, M., Lima, N.C.B., Guedes, R.L.M., Soares, A.E.R., et al. (2018).  Parrot genomes and the evolution of heightened longevity and cognition. Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2018.10.050.

 

 

In Sync: Starlings’ Mesmerizing Murmuration

What is a murmuration?” Chances are, you’ve witnessed the startling grace and beauty of a murmuration of starlings. A murmuration is when a mass of starlings fly in a coordinated manner in what appears to be a moving black cloud. But how is it possible that these birds can be so in tune with each other to know the exact patterns that they fly in? Let’s explore.

The starling is officially referenced as the European Starling, so named after their place of origin. Currently, the starling is well-spread around the globe with enough physical changes to create more than 10 sub-species of the bird. Typically, a common starling is about 7.5” to 9” long, weighs about 2 to 3 ounces, all with a wingspan of approximately 12” to 17”. They are a noisy bird, and hang in fairly large flocks (murmurations). In the US, the starling populatio is thought to be approximately 200 million. Their current conservation status is Least Concern, indicating that there is little risk of their extinction. They appear to be resourceful and fully adaptable.

The stand-apart beauty of these birds is in their majestic display of flying in concert as a flock. If you have seen this, then you know full well how mesmerizing it can be. Just how they are able to attain such symmetry in flight is the wonder. Fortunately, science has studied just how the starlings achieve such perfection in flight by studying video and photo shots from those videos.

The Science Behind Their Synchronicity

In 2012, a science paper published in 2012 concluded that any individual bird within the flying murmuration is perfectly in sync with only seven of its closest birds. With that, they are able to maintain a perfect flight pattern along with the entire flock. The scientist, George F. Young, evaluated photos and videos from flocks of 440 to around 2,600 in size. For any bird, if uncertainty arose as to direction, it immediately adjusted to the pattern of its closet seven pals in flight. The science is simple and demystifies the stunning vision of perfect flight.

In actuality, this is not a unique display of cohesion. In fact, if you have seen a school of fish, you would find that they exhibit the same manner of grace in swimming that the starlings produce in flight. Also, if you notice many birds of other species that are gathered in small flocks, you will see that when they fly, they have an interesting control of their combined flight patterns. It might not be as graceful as a starling murmuration (or a large school of fish), but you can see the same science at work.

Nature is full of immeasurable and uncountable art not attainable by human means. And for that, we come to love it more deeply, and to amaze at the science of it all.

Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Putting Parrots’ Inferential Knowledge To The Test

African Grey Parrot on a perchInference from Exclusion: A More Complete View

Studies to determine how nonhumans use inferential knowledge to make decisions commonly involve something call the “2-cup task.” The basic idea is to give the subjects two cups, A and B, let them know that nothing is in A, and see if they will infer that a treat is in B (“A or B? Not A, therefore B”).

In the simplest version, a subject sees the cups, a barrier is erected in front of the cups, the experimenter shows the subject that he or she is hiding a treat behind the barrier, then removes the barrier, shows that A is empty and asks the subject to find the treat. In a slightly more complicated version, a subject sees the experimenter hide two treats of equal value, one in A and one in B. The experimenter then erects the barrier, stealthily removes the treat from A, lifts the barrier, shows she is eating the treat herself, and then asks the subject to find the other treat.

One or both of these tasks, with appropriate controls for various types of cuing or to rule out non-inferential (i.e., associative) ways of achieving the correct result, have been given to various species—including children—and all species that have been tested succeed at least to some extent (reviewed in Voelter & Call, 2017). African grey parrots actually perform exceedingly well (Pepperberg et al., 2013). However, as is often the case in studies on cognition, someone thinks the task through in bit more detail, and argues that the task doesn’t really fully test the concept or concepts under study—here, the understanding of the combination of the logical “or” and “not” as well as the difference between certainty and mere possibility.

2 Cups

Researchers arguing against the 2-cup task were my colleagues at Harvard—Susan Carey and her graduate student, Shilpa Mody (Mody & Carey, 2016). They claimed that in the 2-cup task, subjects might not be thinking “Definitely A or B. Not A, definitely B!” but something more like “Maybe A, maybe B? Not A, still maybe B?” and choosing B by default. They set out to test this possibility in children; I and my students decided to see how our parrot, Griffin (who had aced the 2-cup task) would perform (Pepperberg et al., 2018). Carey and Mody designed two tasks—a 3-cup task to examine the difference between certainty and possibility, and a 4-cup task to examine inferential reasoning.

3 Cups

In the 3-cup task, subjects see one cup on one side (A) and two cups on the other side (B, C) and are shown that they are all empty. A barrier is erected, and two treats are hidden—one on each side. The barrier is removed, and the subjects are asked to find a treat. If they understand the task, they should go to A on every trial, because a treat must be in A, and there is only a 50-50 chance of finding the treat in the other side (B or C). Several trials are given each subject. If a subject could respond merely by chance at 33% (all cups being equally valid), all the children tested (2½-, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds) succeeded. However, if chance is considered 50%—the choice between the certain side and the uncertain side—the 2½-year-olds failed and the other children scored only between ~60-70%. Interestingly, Griffin was at about 90%! Also interesting was that on a very similar task, chimpanzees scored at the same level as the 2-½-year-olds (Hanus & Call, 2014). Although the 3-cup task didn’t test inferential abilities, the data suggested that subjects that succeeded on the 2-cup task didn’t truly understand the difference between “definitely” and “probably”.

4 Cups

In the 4-cup task designed to test inference (see figure below), subjects see two cups on one side (A,B) and two cups on the other side (C,D) and, again, are shown that they are all empty. A barrier is erected, and, again two treats are hidden, one on each side. The barrier is removed and the subjects are shown that one cup on one side is empty (e.g., A). If they understand the task, they should infer that a treat has 100% chance of being in B, only a 50-50 chance of being in C or D, and choose B. As before, several trials are given each subject. With chance set at 33% (no child chose the cup that had been shown to be empty), 2-½-year-olds failed and the older children chose the correct cup only ~60-75% of the time. Our parrot Griffin again outperformed the children, scoring close to 85%. This task has not been given to chimpanzees, and we don’t know how they might score. However, given their scores on the 3-cup task, they might again score like the 2½-yr-old children and fail. So, it looked as though Griffin was even better than children (and possibly apes) and that he truly understood inference.

However, there was one not-so-small problem. The very many children tested had each been given only four trials each, too few for them to learn the task. Griffin, though, had been given several dozen trials in order for us to acquire the same statistical power. Although Griffin didn’t appear to do better as the test proceeded, it was possible that he had somehow learned simply to go to the cup next to the one that had been shown to be empty—that is, that he had ignored one set of cups (C,D) and just focused on the two most relevant ones (A,B). To determine if that were the case, we had to perform two more experiments, which for reasons that will soon become evident, we called “gambling” trials.

A Gamble With Skittles

In the first experiment, we repeated the 4-cup task, but now included eight trials in which we hid nothing on one side (e.g., the A-B side). We then showed Griffin that nothing was in one of the cups on that side (A). If he understood the task, wanted a reward, and wasn’t simply going to the cup next to the one that was empty, he would have to gamble and choose one cup from the other side at random (C or D). And that’s exactly what he did on the gambling trials. He wasn’t very happy, because he often didn’t get a reward, but he understood the task. (On one trial, he actually chose the empty cup—we think he did so out of frustration, so that the trial would end and he could be given a regular trial where he knew he could get his reward by inferring, rather than guessing, where his treat would be!) Of course, one could still argue that he was simply avoiding the empty side.

Hence the second experiment. Here we also repeated the 4-cup task, but now included eight trials in which we hid a Skittle© on one side. We showed him the empty cup on the side that had a nut, rather than a candy. (NB: These candies are not healthy treats, but are absolutely Griffin’s favorite food. We figured a few such candies would not be too bad for him and might really motivate him to gamble.) So, if Griffin understood the task, he knew he had a 100% chance of a nut, and a 50-50 chance of his favorite candy. He did gamble several times, showing that he wasn’t simply going to the cup next to the empty cup. Note that if he gambled and lost, he stopped gambling for a few trials, but he gambled enough to show that the effect was real.

A Parrot’s Understanding

So, our findings have two conclusions. First, the 2-cup task demonstrates capacities that are necessary for inference, but not sufficient for full understanding. Second, an African grey parrot understands the task at levels somewhat above those of 5-year-old children. We can’t claim that Griffin has complete understanding of the logical “or” and “not”—our data are consistent with that claim, but cannot prove it for various other reasons. We are, however, engaging in some additional studies to see how far Griffin’s understanding extends.

Hanus, D. & Call, J. (2014). When maths trumps logic: probabilistic judgements in chimpanzees. Biol. Lett. 10: 20140892

Mody, S. & Carey, S. (2016). The emergence of reasoning by the disjunctive syllogism in early childhood. Cognition 154: 40-48.

Pepperberg, I.M., Gray, S.L., Cornero, F.M., Mody, S., & Carey, S. (2018). Logical reasoning by a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)? A case study of the disjunctive syllogism. Behaviour DOI:10.1163/1568539X-00003528.

Pepperberg, I.M., Koepke, A., Livingson, P., Girard, M. & Hartsfied, L.A. (2013). Reasoning by inference: further studies on exclusion in Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). J. Comp. Psychol. 127: 272-281.

Voelter, C.J. & Call, J. (2017). Causal and inferential reasoning in animals. In: APA handbook of comparative psychology (Call, J., Burghardt, G., Pepperberg, I.M. & Zentall, T.R., eds). American Psychological Association Press, Washington, DC, p. 643-671.

New Research: Secret to Parrot Intelligence? It’s In Their Genes

It’s always a treat to discover news stories revolving around the feathered kind, and there certainly some fascinating findings to share. Here’s a must-read compilation of  “birds in the news.”

blue-fronted Amazon parrotWe who share our homes with parrots can see firsthand what research consistently points to – parrots are smart! Now science helps explain how parrots have set themselves apart from other birds. A new study of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot’s genome suggests that parrots are as genetically distant from other birds as humans are from other primates. In fact, one neuroscientist goes so far as to conclude that “parrots are [human’s] parallel in the avian world.” See how similar to the way humans evolved away from primates, parrots evolved away from other bird species.

macaw feathersHiding In Trees Leads to Evolutionary Spark in Birds’ Shiny Feathers

Recent research links birds’ pretty feathers to their evolutionary move to roosting in trees. This fascinating article reveals that birds’ iridescent feathers evolved after they began to live in trees around 150 million years ago. In essence, trees afforded them refuge from predators and having that “evolutionary peace of mind,” evidently afforded birds the opportunity to develop pretty feathers to catch the eye of potential mates.

kea parrotLaughter Contagious Among Parrots

Laughter can become contagious among people, and now research on New Zealand’s Kea parrot (the only parrot to inhabit mountainous regions) shows that these gregarious parrots also like to get in on a good chuckle. See how this makes Kea parrots the first non-mammals known to experience “contagious” merriment.

 

drone flyingHumans Copied Birds to Make Drones; Now Birds Are Defending Their Airspace

Google “parrot” and your search engine will likely display results for a popular brand of camera drone; essentially a flying, remote controlled camera. Birds’ biomechanics helped inspire drone innovators, but there are also increasing incidents of birds clashing with drones. See how drone operators are meeting resistance from the birds who don’t wish to share their airspace.

Cockatoo Survives Storm & Wins the Hearts of Many

cockatoo on groundThroughout history, there has been no lack of extraordinary tales of extreme determination against overwhelming odds. Some of them are history book worthy. And while there are many more stories of bravery that fill the all the pages of life’s book, none of them are less memorable than the other. This particularly heartwarming tale involves the tale of the aptly named Lazarus the Cockatoo.

A wild and devastating thunderstorm swept through the region of Queensland, Australia, back in early October 2018. This cell of storms produced strong winds, large hail, and even a tornado that caused extensive damage to the town it touched down in. One of the damages assessed belonged to a dairy farm in the rural location of Coolabunia. After the storm had passed, the owner of the dairy farm, Damien Tessman, had gone out to look over the property. Sustained damages included the loss of the roof on his dairy barn, broken windows, and dents to the building.

As Tessman was surveying the damage, he came across what he assumed was a dead cockatoo, which was discovered lying among hail with its head on a concrete structure. The farmer nudged the bird with his foot. Surprisingly, the bird leapt up and left no uncertainly that it was indeed alive. After a few attempts to fly, Tessman determined that the bird may have a broken wing due to the violence of the weather.

Cockatoo’s Amazing Recovery

Tessman covered the bird with a towel and placed it in a metal bin with corn to feed it. The farmer promised to take the bird to a vet to help it heal. Despite the fact that the powerful storm killed many birds at the farm, this cockatoo was not only a survivor, but also a surprisingly active and noisy one. As each new day arrived, Tessman would open the door of the bird’s newfound safe haven to see what the bird would do. He would take the cockatoo out onto the lawn and give it time to make a decision. Five days later, the bird took flight and flew away.

The name of Lazarus was bestowed upon the cockatoo by fans after Tessman posted his find and the plight of the bird on social media. The post went viral and was soon followed by people all over the world prompting many to inquire after the bird on a frequent basis. Perhaps no followers were more pleased to see the resurrection of the cockatoo named Lazarus regain flight and move on than the farmer himself.

More often than not, the story of a particular bird will stretch into months of recovery, sometimes ending in a sad reversal of fortunes. With Lazarus, the story begins and ends with a flash of activity much like the storm that created the incident. And that story, fortunately, ends on a high note. Lazarus the cockatoo’s plight was a short one. But the determination to pull through along with the help of benevolent farmer gave Lazarus his/her (the sex of the bird is unknown) a second chance at life. We applaud not only Lazarus and its spirit to survive, but also Mr. Tessman, who made it possible for the bird to recuperate in peace.

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