Avian Expert Articles


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!



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.

Could a Pet Parrot Be Happy in Captivity?

umbrella cockatooIs it possible for a pet parrot to be as happy in captivity as they would be in the wild? Is parrot ownership more like prison … or could it be like a happy, perpetual childhood experience?

As a bird mom to three cockatoos and a parrotlet, it is a question with which I wrestle day-by-day, and even moment-by-moment—and over which I’ve lost sleep, plagued with guilt.

It’s a feeling that never goes away, really, this nagging in my heart and stomach. Would my genius and high-energy Goffin’s cockatoo, Ellie, have been happier if she were wild? Is she her happiest self, here with me?

Here are my thoughts about the question, “Is it possible for a parrot to be as happy in captivity as in the wild?”

The first bit of my research was practical. A survey of baby songbirds showed that 83% of them die within the first year. I know Ellie isn’t a songbird, but research is limited on wild Goffin’s so … I’m going to go with these parameters.

If Ellie were wild, she’d probably also be dead in some horrific way.

If she’d made it past the first year, about half of the adult (songbirds) die per year. The average life expectancy of a tit bird is 2.6 years, for instance, although their actual life span is 21 years. You can read more about that in this interesting article. I had no idea life-expectancy of wild birds was so short.

The next thing she’d have to deal with are the elements. Many animals pass away in the harsh weather and winter, and dehydration is actually more likely than starvation. The beautiful wild is also really, really harsh.

(Stay with me! I promise there’s a happy ending here!)

Drought, injury, disease, infestation and predation also kind of suck for wild birds.

When I was desperate with owner-guilt, I googled and read a bunch of articles. Christine Wilcox also wrote an interesting piece about this very thing called “Bambi or Bessie: Are Wild Animals Happier?” in Scientific American. It’s an excellent essay, and worth reading.

In a nutshell, Christine believes that animals that are relieved from exposure, given basic care AND are allowed to express themselves naturally (with socialization and enrichment) are a lot happier than their wild counterparts and she’s got some good data for that idea too.

So here are my humble bird-mom thoughts on it.

Florida Atlantic University student, Jolie Reisner, is our brilliant research assistant on the literacy work we’re doing with cockatoos. She sent me an interesting article about whether animal captivity could be considered incarceration.

The thought—and, yes, I think it sometimes some animal captivity could be likened to prison—makes me nauseous with sadness. Certainly the analogy sticks when animals lack love, nurturing, freedom of choice, and especially enrichment.

This is particularly an absolute concern for birds. It’s so easy to drown their voices, to shut them away. To keep them as decoration. To force them here or there, to hurt them. To ignore them as they numb away…


Goffins cockatooI don’t think it’s always, or often necessarily, that way at all. My friend, Dr. Clubb of Rainforest Clinic and Exotics, an avian veterinarian with a career spanning over 30 years, says avian care and enrichment is getting better and better.

I think parrot captivity could also be likened to childhood, in a sense. Humans can have very, very happy childhoods, notwithstanding limited major life choices and some of the bumps that come along the journey when someone else is in charge of your life.

Children have toys and activities, they have enrichment and experiences, they can be so very deeply loved, and I think absolutely deeply happy too.

Is a trade-off of wildlife living for something akin to a beloved childhood experience worth it?

When it comes to Ellie (and so many of your birds, too), I’ve come to believe that it is possible for her to be very happy in captivity, in a world free of predation and pestilence, free of winter chills and starvation.

She lives an existence of profound love, a home with sisters and toys, friends who care about her, a mother who loves her fiercely. I think parrot “captivity” really could be very much compared to a perpetual happy childhood—perhaps a few challenges along the way—but filled even with the kinds of choices children make: their friends, their favorite foods, games, learning, and activities.

When bird parronts are sensitive to their little charges’ preferences and fill their lives with a rotating assortment of enrichment, a variety of things to taste, experiences to be had, training and guidance for those bumps. When I look around at so many of you bird mom and dad friends who absolutely adore your little bird kids…I still struggle so much with guilt (don’t all mothers?), but I do actually think a life in captivity can be a very worthwhile life indeed.

Cheers to all you awesome moms and dads!


Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Fish &  Parrots  Outperform Apes & Monkeys

African grey parrotIf the title seems a bit odd, the results of the study most definitely were, and surprised almost everyone involved. The task itself was based on the behavior of wrasse fish—species that live near reefs, and are known as “cleaner” fish. They obtain their food by removing parasites, dead tissue, and scales from larger fish. They sometimes also consume healthy tissue and mucus, but they don’t that too often, so as not to lose their clients. They generally service the same fish over and over, but occasionally ignore their steady clientele to service fish that are not common residents but swim by the reef randomly—an ephemeral source of food. Supposedly, it is worth their time to do so, as their regular clientele will still be around and thus remain a steady source.

So, the experiment was set up as follows: subjects are given two alternatives, A and B, with identical reward provided for each; however, if they choose A, they also receive the reward associated with B, whereas if they choose B, the reward for A is removed. Thus, choosing A gives them two rewards, whereas choosing B gives them only one. The idea is to give them a situation like the reef: if they choose their standard clientele, they get a single reward; if they choose the ephemeral clientele, they can still go back to their steady clientele and get double payday.


Fish Pick The Right Dish

The fish were graded on how quickly they learned to choose A over B—in this case, a black dish versus a white one in a laboratory setting. Some of the fish solved the problem in about 30 trials, thought the majority needed 50. The experimenters also examined how quickly the fish learned to reverse their learning to choose B—a standard way of testing flexible understanding. The average needed for reversal was about 80 trials.


The striking aspect of the study was that the researchers also tested apes and capuchin monkeys. None of the monkeys and only two of seven apes solved the original task at all, but those needed well over the fishes’ 50 trials, and only one primate could do the reversal in under 100 trials. Only after the researchers tried some very different initial conditions could the apes and monkeys perform more like the fish (Salzwiczek et al., 2012).

Parrots Succeed Where Monkeys & Apes Fail

We came across this paper because a referee of one of our journal manuscripts thought it was relevant for the study being reviewed. We didn’t see the connection to that line of research at all, but thought it would be a fun experiment to try. So we tested African grey Griffin in our lab, as well as Pepper and Franco—two Greys owned by a couple who used to work in our lab and who understood all the procedural issues that would be necessary to replicate the study in their home.

It turns out that African grey parrots outperform apes and even most of the fish, succeeding on the task in fewer than 30 trials and in the reversal of the conditions in fewer than 50 trials (Pepperberg & Hartsfield, 2014). The issue is really interesting, because in most aspects of behavior (long lives, extended childhood, extensive foraging, dominance hierarchies, large complex brains, advanced cognitive processing, etc.), parrots are much more like apes than fish. So why are the parrots so good?

Some researchers (e.g., Zentall & Case, 2018) argue that optimal performance on this task depends on reducing impulsive choice, as well as the impossibility of grabbing two things at once—something the apes often tried to do, but an action that is impossible for the parrots and fish. This explanation does make some sense, given that research I described last month that demonstrated parrots are quite good at a delayed gratification task!

Pepperberg, I. M., & Hartsfield, L. A. (2014). Can grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) succeed on a “complex” foraging task failed by nonhuman primates (Pan troglodytes, Pongo abelii, Sapajus apella) but solved by wrasse fish (Labroides dimidiatus)? — J. Comp. Psychol. 128:298–306.

Salwiczek, L. H., Prétôt, L., Demarta, L., Proctor, D., Essler, J., Pinto, A. I., Wismer, S., Stoinski, T., Brosnan, S. F., & Bshary, R. (2012). Adult cleaner wrasse outperform capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees, and orang-utans in a complex foraging task derived from cleaner-client reef fish cooperation. PLoS One, 7, e49068. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049068

Zentall, T.R., & Case, J. (2018). The ephemeral-rewards task: Optimal performance depends on reducing impulsive choice. Curr. Dir. Psych. Sci. 27:103-109.


Cockatoo “Retires” From The Limelight At Age 82

sulphur-crested cockatoo
Photo courtesy Sarasota Jungle Gardens

In our world of entertainment, we enjoy watching special people with special talents. Musicians, actors and actresses, writers, comedians, athletes, and others whose occupations hold various degrees of respect and awe in our lives. Some hold a thrall over different audiences at different age levels. Nevertheless, it’s easy to recognize that we all like to be distanced from our daily lives by a collection of things, often championed by those talented performers. And while we often tend to think along the lines of human entertainers, creatures are not out of the picture.

One such entertainer is Frosty, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, who, at the age of 82, has wowed audiences at the Sarasota Jungle Gardens for well over 40 years of his well-lived life. The Sarasota Jungle Gardens, located in the attraction-rich area of Central Florida on the Gulf side, began in 1939. Since, it has developed into a premier location of 11 acres of beautiful and exotic landscaping highlighted by such exotic creatures as snakes, alligators, primates, fish, pink flamingos, and, of course, exotic birds as well as extraordinary displays of exotic trees.

One of the Original “Jail Birds”

The exotic birds were introduced in 1972. An Exotic Bird Show was started to help increase the visibility of the location. The birds for the show were acquired from the Folsom State Prison, a California combination minimum-medium security prison site where birds had been trained by prison inmates at the facility. (Some sources state Chino Prison and San Quentin as the origination place for the Jail Birds.)  The birds were trained to ride bicycles, to paint, and, a myriad of other tricks providing an avenue of positive psychological diversion for the prisoners. The acquired birds for the new show were cleverly called the Jail Birds. One of those “jail birds” was Frosty the sulphur-crested cockatoo.

Frosty has entertained tens of thousands of visitors to the park since his arrival in 1972. His tricks included the ability to ride a unicycle on the high wire, and other assorted skillful maneuvers. But, as age will have it, Frosty’s ability to see clearly has diminished, and he has been officially “retired” from all trick exhibits. His retirement was celebrated with a special weekend at Sarasota Jungle Gardens on the days of October 20 and 21, 2018, before letting him enjoy life as a “view only” exotic bird within the park’s exotic bird exhibit.

In addition to having been a part of the Folsom Prison rehabilitation program, and a long-time resident of the Exotic Bird Show, Frosty also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show back in the ‘60s during the variety show’s peak years.

Frosty still enjoys an open-air perch for daily interaction with visitors. It’s just that he no longer rides a unicycle and scooter on a high wire to gain his shares of “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from the adoring crowd.

Frosty is now known as Frosty Senior. And he certainly deserves the retirement years ahead of him.

New Bird? 5 Ways To Get Off To A Great Start

male normal gray cockatielMake the most of the First Few Weeks with a New Bird

It’s so exciting to have a new parrot, isn’t it? When you bring a bird home, you have a wonderful opportunity to establish a positive relationship from the start, set realistic expectations, and get ahead of problem behaviors.

When working with a new bird, strive to learn two things that will help you build trust: motivators and body language.

1. See What Motivates Your Bird

A motivator is what a bird will work for, and it is usually, but not always, food. Some birds prefer praise, petting, access to a mirror, or a favorite toy. To determine your bird’s motivators, offer a wide variety of nuts, seeds, and fresh food in a bowl, and watch which one your parrot picks out first, second, and third. Do this over the course of a few meals. Remove these foods from the diet, and use them only when rewarding her when she does something you want her to do.

2. Get To Know Your Bird’s Body Language

Birds communicate through body language, whether the bird is content or stressed, agitated, or sexually stimulated. Learning your bird’s body language dictionary should be a primary goal. Observe how the bird holds feathers all over the body, the shape of her eye, how her feet are placed, whether the beak is open or closed, and the overall stance.

Each bird is unique. She may be very quiet and still as she checks out her new environment, or she may be immediately comfortable. Watch her body language for clues. Move at your bird’s pace. Let the bird choose to come out to you and interact with you. Stepping-up is a very sophisticated behavior for a bird. It requires maximum trust. Please do not expect a bird to step up on your hand immediately, or try to force this behavior. It can break trust.

This initial non-confrontational approach will speed the parrot’s adjustment time to her new surroundings and will allow her to integrate into your family sooner.

3. Set Real Expectations

Along with learning motivators and body language, set realistic expectations. During the first few weeks, set the standard for the pattern of behavior the bird will expect from you. During this time, pay as much attention to the new parrot as you will, on average, be able to spend with her in the long term. For example, if you spend 8 hours a day snuggling with your new cockatoo (not a good idea for many reasons!), the cockatoo will be used to that level of attention and may develop negative behaviors, such as screaming, biting and even feather plucking, when you cannot devote a day to her.

Instead, plan time during the day or evening for one-on-one interaction, such as training time or play time, and provide a few hours of ambient attention, when the bird shares time with the family, preferably away from the cage, perhaps on a play gym or stand. The bird is simply “hanging out” and not necessarily the center of attention. Birds love to be included in family activity.

4. Ignore Negative Behavior

Now is also the time to get ahead of problem behaviors. Do not respond to any behavior that you cannot live with for 50 years. In other words, if the bird does something you don’t like (scream, for example) ignore the behavior. Do not look at the bird, do not talk to the bird, and do not put the bird back in her cage. Ensure everyone in the family agrees to ignore bad behavior whether they interact with the bird or not. Be consistent.

5. Praise Good Behavior

Instead, increase the likelihood of positive behaviors by praising and giving attention to the behaviors that you like. Use her motivators, and praise her, for example, when she whistles, instead of screams.

Above all, please be patient with the new family member. Understand that the first few weeks is often called the “honeymoon period” for a reason: The parrot is on high alert in a new situation and may behave with extreme caution. Your bird will reveal her true personality slowly over time, so the patterns you establish during the first few weeks will help you lay the groundwork for a great relationship.


Simple rules to follow when interacting with any parrot:

  • Never react to behavior you do not like, and praise and reward behavior you do like, or, simply put, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
  • Respect her space, have patience when working with her, and let her choose to learn at her pace.
  • If you get a bite, stop what you are doing, and try a different approach. A bite always means that your parrot is uncomfortable (and probably threatened) by what you are doing.

Make Your Love of Birds Count

Photo Credit: Project FeederWatch

As years draw to a close, it’s a feeling of reflections on the past and thoughts for the upcoming future, that begin to take hold of us. October/November usually provide a cushion of time before the realities of the New Year come to fruition. But once that happens, we’re on a pathway, like it or not. And it always goes forward.

For our fellow creatures, a dependence on the good will of mankind is essential. As we choose to be destructive — whether by necessity or by deliberate action — our actions can adversely impact the existence of our living creatures that are unable to affect their own surroundings in a manner suitable and sustainable for them. That’s where we come in. That’s where we need to come in.

During the course of the year, either at the beginning or near the end, trends and observance rituals begin to take shape that help us to understand our birds better. The higher profile Big Bird Count, which takes place in February (22 years in 2019!), the massive Global Big Day Count, which occurs in May, and other smaller events are designed to bring us to a closer understanding of migration, weather disruptions, unusual movements, and other things. But we have an end-of-the-year event designed to pay close attention to the winter season movement and gathering of birds.

For the end of the year, there is the annual, five-month long Project FeederWatch program that concentrates on location, types of birds available, the count of birds, their behavior patterns, the types of weather they show up during, and any unusual observances worth noting. Other interests for this data-gathering exercise include unusually high gatherings and rare bird sightings.

The FeederWatch program is a joint project of the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Bird Studies Canada. The season (for 2018-2019) begins on November 10, 2018, and carries through April 5, 2019. ( Project FeederWatch always begins on the second Saturday of November, and ends on the first Friday after 21 weeks.) Essentially, it’s asked that bird fans, especially outside bird watchers, designate an area that’s easy to observe on an extended basis. Within the sphere of the area, there should be feeders, water features, and plants designed to attract birds. The idea is simply to count, categorize, and observe, taking notes whenever necessary to create a journal of useable data.

During this period, you are asked to select two consecutive days of watch per week. You are asked to count and observe only within these two days. Therefore, even if you see more birds than usual on an “off day,” these are not counted as it would distort the ordinary data you’re accumulating. You’re asked to place each period of observation five days apart.  Tally sheets, which can be downloaded, are used for observation data. From here, the rules and suggestions become somewhat specific and detailed, and thus should be consulted to make the exercise a useful one.

There is a place to join Project FeederWatch and learn much more (here). You’ll be assigned a unique ID (needed to factor in with the official counts and observations). There are two sign-up procedures, one for the USA, and one for Canada. The cost is $18 per season ($15, if you’re a Cornell Lab member). You’ll be supplied with a wealth of things such as poster, complete access to the Project FeederWatch website, tally sheets, and other tools and fun things.

If you find an urge to participate, we sincerely hope you enjoy your experience during the FeederWatch period. Your help is greatly needed and extremely helpful. But most of all, just enjoy watching your birds!

A Fun Look at “Spooktacular Parrots” This Halloween

It’s that spooky time of the year! Some parrot species seem to especially mesh with a Halloween theme. Here is a lighthearted look at parrot species that bring “trick or treat” up a notch.

grey parrotAfrican Greys

If there was one parrot that could put together their own “haunted house,” it would be an African grey parrot. Beyond the notoriety of being extremely intelligent birds, greys are also known to be insanely good at mimicking human speech, as well as a plethora of sounds — usually those they know will get their people’s attention. If you really want to “trick” someone, have them spend time unaware that an African grey is in the house. They might be reaching for a phone that isn’t really ringing, answering a knock on the door or doorbell ring with no one on the doorstep, and, no, there’s no food in the microwave that just finished cooking! Of course, greys and many other parrots with the gift of gab, might also try to trick people with spot-on imitations of their people or people they’ve met. Will your guest fall for that “Hello sweetie,” that sounds just like grandma is in the house?


parakeetBudgies (aka Parakeet)

One of the more interesting sounds you are likely to hear in the pet bird world is a budgie that can talk. A budgie’s voice is similar in size to the bird itself — small, and it can sound quite whispery or chirpy. Some have gone so far as to describe a budgie’s mimicry of human speech as “slightly demonic” sounding — like an old vinyl record sped up and played backwards. Hearing a budgie say, “Give me a kiss” — if you don’t know it’s coming from a small feathered being — can certainly induce goosebumps.



Something about cockatoos is wizard-like. Perhaps it’s the way they play with their food and toys — twirling it in the air much like a magician waving a wand. Their bold, expressive eyes also seem to exude a higher power looking at you, or through you…and before you know it, you are under their spell. “Another Nutri-Berrie treat? You’ve got it master!”


caique portraitCaiques

If caiques dressed up for Halloween, of course they’d be clowns. And these frolic-prone parrots won’t need much cajoling to get into character. Just give them a foot toy, and behold the on-their-back circus antics, or play with them long enough to literally get them hopping. A happy caique can be as giddy as a child dressed up for Halloween!


…And Let’s Not Forget Eclectus Parrots

You can’t look at a male Eclectus parrot’s beak and not think “Candy corn!” That colorful orange beak is quite a stunner no matter what time of the year it is!


Teach Your Bird to Communicate “Yes” and “No”

Sometimes I think about the kinds of choices adults make. We choose where we work, who we marry, what and where to eat. We choose practical things like our homes and vehicles and fun things, like which books to read, what hobbies to pursue. We choose our vacations. We browse the internet for hours, or read the Sunday paper. We choose to spend time with friends we enjoy.

While a little more limited, children have lots of choice in their lives, too. They can choose to play sports, like soccer, or to learn piano. They choose which books they want to read, and they remind their parents what they want for lunch. Children choose their favorite cartoons to watch, and choose the games they want to play outside.

When my Goffin’s cockatoo, Ellie, came home to me as a baby, I provided for her the most enriched environment I could imagine. I chose fantastic toys for her, and rotated them every day. I made foraging toys for her. I taught her tricks I thought she’d like, and ensured she had four hours of out-of-cage playtime every day. I chose her playtime and her bedtime. I chose her treats.

I also realized that because I chose pretty much everything in her life, her daily options were: whether to eat the chop and pellets I provided, whether to snub my toys, and which houseplant to destroy when I wasn’t looking.

I so deeply value my freedom, my ability to choose. I wanted that for her, too. I wanted my cockatoo, a brilliant parrot who could potentially live for 60 years, to be able to tell me YES and NO.

The Power of  “Yes”/ “No” Communication

This desire drove me to tinker with methods to teach Ellie yes/no communication, without much luck. For years, I bit my lip, staring at her and wondering how to break the language barrier that kept us from communicating.

In August, 2016 I began to teach her phonics as an enrichment activity. Within several months she’d learned all of her letter sounds, and started blending the sounds into reading words, ultimately learning words like “Yes” and “No.”

And then, with a little training, she started communicating “Yes” and “No” easily, fluently, and a whole world of understanding opened up between us.

She began choosing the music we listened to, and the activities we did during the day. She chose her toys and what she wanted me to cook for breakfast. She chose her learning activities, and even her favorite friends.

Communicating with an animal so easily, so clearly, felt magical. It still feels magical. It’s not magic, of course. It’s just training. But it has brought indescribable joy to our lives.

These days I train parrot owners through online classes how to communicate with their birds in a very simple way, using red and green objects and a few vocabulary words. The magic begins within even just a few short lessons — and below are the steps you can take to teach your parrot to communicate with you!

“Yes” and “No” communication is composed of three processes:

1. Target training

2. “Yes”/“No” training

3. Simple vocabulary development

Selecting “Yes”/”No” objects

The bird is going to be taught to associate “Yes” with a touch to one object, and “No” with a touch to a different object. For parrots I am training, I often use a green object to indicate “Yes” and a red one for “No.” I recommend objects such as index cards or wood. Green and red are easy colors for parrots to discriminate, and they are also easily remembered: Green means “Go” and red means “Stop.” If preferred, you could use alternative communication objects, such as two different shapes.

Select Two Vocabulary Objects

After selecting the yes/no objects, you will need two more objects: something your bird wants, and something (non-aversive) that your bird does not want, like a bowl of cold water. I often teach “treat” as the first vocabulary object and “water” as the second.

Most birds will want a treat, and (if they aren’t thirsty) probably won’t have much interest in the water. We call these “neutral no’s.” They are things the bird doesn’t particularly want, but items that are not at all aversive. Some other ideas include broccoli, a spoon, or something similar.

Training materials needed:

  • An object to indicate “Yes” and an object for “No.”
  • An object your bird wants (treat?) and a “neutral no” object.
  • Reinforcers

Step 1: Teach “Yes” and “No”:

  1. Target train “Yes.” Present your pre-conditioned “Yes” object (i.e., the green index card) near the bird, and say “Touch yes!” As soon as they touch “Yes,” click, reinforce, and repeat for several repetitions.
    1. I do this repetitively for a minute or two, holding it in different locations near the parrot, so they have to move to the left, move to the right, take a few steps, to touch “Yes.”
  2. Target train “No.” Repeat Step 1 until the bird has spent a few minutes learning the “No” object.
  3. Offer both “Yes” and “No” objects. Using errorless learning, place the “Yes” one nearby and the “No” one further away. Say “Touch yes!” The goal is for the parrot to easily select “Yes,” because it is the nearer one. Repeat this step, bringing the “No” object nearer and nearer, while the parrot grows used to selecting “yes.” Ultimately, both objects should be presented at equal distances to the parrot. The training is complete when they select “Yes” with 70% or better accuracy.
    1. If the bird is repeatedly inaccurate or random, move the “no” object farther away again, and retrain, slowly bringing the “no” object closer.
    2. Then swap, and do the same with the “no” object.
    3. If the bird is still inaccurate after a few presentations, go back to Steps 1 and 2. Two of my three cockatoos caught on quickly; the third took a few days of training.

Step 2: Teach two vocabulary objects

  1. Once the parrot has mastered “Yes” and “No,” they are ready to learn two new vocabulary words. Use the same technique to teach them to touch your two chosen objects—one desired and the other a “neutral no.”

Repeat Step 1a for each of the two items independently, and give the parrot reinforcers for touching the treat as you teach the word “Treat,” and the cold water bowl as you teach “Water,” upon verbal prompt. Then repeat Step 3 above, discriminating between the two objects, to ensure they have learned the vocabulary words fluently.

Step 3: Teach “Yes” and “No” meanings:

  1. Teach “Yes.” Pair their desired object (like a treat) to “Yes.” Ask: “Do you want a treat?” and present the “Yes” and “No” objects.
    1. If they pick “yes,” give them what they’ve requested (a treat). Do this several times so that they understand picking “yes” results in them getting the object desired.
    2. If they pick “no,” remove the “yes”/“no” objects briefly and then recue, presenting “yes” and “no” again. They may pick “no” several times—each time, remove the “yes”/“no” and then recue. If needed, hold “yes” closer, so that they pick “yes” and are reinforced. Then repeat, until they choose “yes” fluently, when asked if they want a treat.
  2. Teach “no.” Pair a “neutral no” object to “no.” Ask “Do you want [water]?” and present the “yes” and “no” objects.
    1. If they pick “yes,” offer the water for a few seconds, observing their “Meh” response.
    2. If they pick “no,” remove the water and reinforce with a treat. “You’re right. No, you don’t want water.” Repeat until the behavior is fluent.

Parrots can be taught new vocabulary objects through Step 2 in this process. You can also find nine pages of vocabulary ideas and enrichment—as well as video tutorials and pictures for teaching birds to communicate and learn phonics—in our downloadable manuals. www.myreadingpets.com.

Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: African Grey Parrots Show Self-Control

African Grey Sitting

African grey sitting


Grey parrots may sometimes be impulsive—think about how often you may have had to give your bird multiple timeouts for the same behavior (like chewing on your sunglasses) in a very short time period. However, my students and I have shown that our parrot, Griffin, can actually exhibit quite a bit of self-control. We found that out by giving him a classic task used to test children.

The task is informally called the “marshmallow test,” and was designed by the psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1970s. He examined about 60 children, all approximately 4 years old, in a laboratory setting. He used several versions of the task, but in the most common version, he sat each child down behind a table, on which he placed a plate with one marshmallow.

He told the child that he was going to run an errand, and that he would be back in about 15 minutes. He told the child, “If you can keep from eating the marshmallow on the plate in my absence, I’ll give you a second marshmallow when I return.” He also told the children that they could eat the first marshmallow at any time, but that if they didn’t wait for his return, they could not have the second one. And then he left the room (Mischel, 1974).

Now, if you know anything about 4-year-olds, for them 15 minutes is a lifetime. Many children gave up and ate the first marshmallow. But a number of children were able to wait, and almost all of them managed the task by figuring out how to distract themselves. They got up from the table and danced around; they sat at the table and sang to themselves. Sometimes they licked the marshmallow but didn’t eat it. They played with their hair or their clothes. Some even tried to nap.

Mischel argued that those who waited had more self-control, a form of executive function. He surmised that the children with more self-control would be more successful in certain situations, such as being able to finish their homework before going out to play. It wasn’t until he went back and interviewed these children some 30 years later that he found out that his hypothesis was correct: The children who had waited the longest had, for the most part, done better in school, had gone to higher-ranked colleges, had better jobs and fewer divorces! [One note: All of the children he tested had come from middle-class families.

When experimenters subsequently tested children from impoverished communities, these children often didn’t wait, and gave reasons such as not trusting the experimenter to return, or said that they feared that someone else would eat the second marshmallow or even that someone would come and steal the first one…a sad commentary, for sure.]

Nonhumans Put To The Test

My students and I had read a few papers in which researchers used this delayed gratification task on nonhuman subjects. Many papers involved experiments on nonhuman primates, but none of those studies had actually tested the animals in exactly the same way as Mischel had tested the children. In fact, we felt that some of the tests on the nonhuman primates probably had some design flaws. However, on tests very similar to those used by Mischel, cockatoos and some corvids seemed to be able to wait for a better reward, although not for more of a reward (see Auersperg et al., 2014; Hilleman et al., 2014).

The cockatoos waited for many seconds; the corvids for up to about 10 minutes. Interestingly, the corvids, who often cache food in nature, sometimes cached the first reward while waiting—possibly a case of “out of sight, out of mind?” These studies made us wonder whether an African grey parrot might do as well as the children, or maybe even better than the cockatoos and corvids. We knew that our grey parrot, Griffin, understood the word “wait”—although he had no choice in the matter, he heard the word every day when we told him to wait for his cooked luncheon grains to cool, and to wait while people entering into the lab used hand sanitizer and took off their outdoor shoes before going over to greet him. So we proceeded to test him, using Mischel’s exact task (Koepke et al., 2015).

We noted that in almost all the other tests with nonhumans, researchers tweaked Mischel’s procedure. For example, they slowly increased the waiting time—so if their subjects could refrain from eating a peanut for 10 seconds, on the next trial they would try making the subject wait 20 seconds, and so forth, until the subjects failed. Such a procedure could actually be training the subjects to wait, rather than testing their basic behavior.

To control for this possibility, we mixed up all the waiting times. Other researchers sometimes used only one pair of treats; we wanted to ensure that one treat wasn’t some kind of signal for another treat, so we used several different pairs of treats. And we also wanted to ensure that Griffin didn’t interpret the word “wait” as a trained command (like that given a dog who has a biscuit placed on his nose and has to wait for a command to flip it and eat it). So on some trials, we presented the more-favored reward and asked Griffin to wait for the less-favored one.

African Grey Griffin Plays The Waiting Game

Griffin succeeded on the task—he waited in 108 out of 120 trials. He was as successful on the 15-minute delays as on the 10-second delays. He didn’t learn to wait…he made as many errors at the end of testing as at the beginning, and there were as many long delays at the beginning as at the end of the experiment. The different types of treat pairing mostly didn’t matter, although on two of his failures, the rewards were very close in desirability (a cashew and a candy), and he decided to eat the slightly less-favored reward almost immediately.

On the trials in which we asked him to wait for something less favorable, he barely waited at all—he spent a second or two looking up at us as though we were demented and then immediately ate the reward, showing that he was very aware of when he should and shouldn’t wait. And he wasn’t simply losing interest in the reward—on a few of his failures, he waited until almost the end of the delay period—in one case, over 14 minutes—before succumbing to the lure of the reward that was present.

What was particularly interesting, however, were the behavior patterns he exhibited while waiting: He did almost the same things as the young children! He talked to himself, he tried to nap, he preened, he turned his head away. Like the children, he sometimes licked the reward, but didn’t eat it. We actually made a split-screen video of the children (from YouTube) and Griffin to use for a presentation at a conference, although we couldn’t use it in our published paper.

Clearly, Grey parrots can sometimes act quite rashly. However, when it is worthwhile, they are definitely willing to wait, particularly for a better reward. In the wild that makes a lot of sense: If foraging birds come across some fruit, but know that more calorically dense nuts are a bit further along, it’s far better for them to wait for the nuts than to fill up on the fruit. The next step, of course, is to see if Griffin will wait for more of a reward…and that might not be so easy, as it makes less ecological sense: There is no reason not to stop at a small patch of nuts and eat them while en route to a larger patch. Keep tuned to see what Griffin will do!

Auersperg, A. M. I., Laumer, I. B., & Bugnyar, T. (2013). Goffin cockatoos wait for qualitative and quantitative gains but prefer ‘better’ to ‘more’. The Royal Society: Biology Letters, 9, Article 20121092.

Hillemann, F., Bugnyar, T., Kotrschal, K., & Wascher, C. A. F. (2014). Waiting for better, not for more: Corvids respond to quality in two delay maintenance tasks. Animal Behaviour, 90, 1–10.

Mischel, W. (1974). Processes in delay of gratification. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 7 (pp. 249–292). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Bird-Watching & Conservation Go Hand-In-Hand

The experience of bird-watching has become a social phenomenon. Although many of us have always loved the sight of birds in our yards, or in wildly exotic vacation locales, an increased emphasis on conservation, protection, and the sheer joy of experiencing birds in natural settings has upped the interest levels of the public to historic proportions. And, of course, that’s always a good thing. With our populations of exotic birds in rapid decline, the more interested parties become involved in the birds’ well-being, the better chance all of them, even endangered breeds, have in surviving the next 80 years leading into the next Millennium.

Long Tradition of Counting Birds

Organizations like Audubon (established in 1905), National Geographic (established in 1888), and a host of smaller but equally dedicated establishments throughout the last 100 years, have contributed greatly to the understanding and observation of our birds in their natural habitats. With an avalanche of detrimental conditions (tree-clearing, introduction of predators, and diseases), many of our natural birds have become endangered, some to the point of extinction.

Much has been written about annual bird counting events like National Bird Day (January 5), October Big Day (October 6) and other important and activity-rich, calendar-driven undertakings. Nevertheless, it’s great to become aware of individual location-based events that are created specifically to bring delight to viewers, and to encourage the understanding of our birds and their need to live alongside us and other creatures in our rapidly changing world that even humans find unsettling for our own purposes.

The Cape May Fall Festival

One such happening is the upcoming 72nd Annual Cape May Fall Festival in Cape May, New Jersey, on October 18 to 21, 2018. The Cape May Bird Observatory and the New Jersey chapter of The Audubon Society host a collection of fun with 31 separate bird walks, nine boat trips, 11 exclusive indoor programs, a varied collection of vendor booths, and multiple social events. Evening programs include talks by ornithologists, and a lavish buffet spread for diners. All in all, this singular event is representative of an intensified attempt by many such organizations to involve and educate interested people and families. (If you miss this particular New Jersey event, remember that it occurs every year.) For a nominal fee, a group of fascinated enthusiasts can engage in a potentially unforgettable, possibly life-changing event that could help to change our world for the better. (For more information of the Cape May Fall Festival, explore here.)

With well-organized events like the Cape May Fall Festival, the world is increasingly richer with bird-centric (and other creature-centric) awareness. With a bit of properly phrased Googling, one can essentially come up with a wealth of things to take part in over the course of an entire year.

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