Avian Expert Articles


Let’s Talk About The Weather: Parrots & Rainstorms

Thunder and Lightning…

African grey Griffin hides out from a storm.

Most companion birds spend the majority of their lives indoors, but may still show considerable sensitivity to outdoor weather, particularly as it relates to changes in barometric pressure. At least one scientific study — even though the subjects were sparrows rather than parrots (e.g., Metcalfe et al., 2013) — provides good evidence for such sensitivity. Interestingly, the sparrows reacted by eating more than usual; they probably did so to make up for time they would lose foraging because of a storm. Researchers found that these birds have special pressure-sensitive organs in their ears that help them track relevant fluctuations (see review in Breuner et al., 2013). It makes sense that creatures that can be affected by severe storms would have evolved some kind of early warning system to help them prepare for what could be dangerous or difficult conditions.

Alex And Midwest Weather

My knowledge of parrots’ reactions to weather is not based on scientific research, but rather anecdotal experience, and pre-dates those papers by decades. When Alex and I were in a basement lab at Purdue in the late 1970s, my students always said that he was the best predictor of severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes, well ahead of the local weather forecasters. Unlike the sparrows, Alex did not reach for his food dish. Parrots are much bigger birds with a lot more energy reserves — they wouldn’t need to react the same way — and whether parrots have the same ear structure as sparrows is unknown.

Nevertheless, Alex somehow always sensed the incipient abrupt changes in atmospheric pressure, and would become very “edgy.” He would ask to go back to his cage, or to his gym, or to our knees, or to our shoulders, over and over. It appeared to us that he was searching for, but couldn’t find, a place in which he would feel safe. We learned by chance that, for some unknown reason, playing one of Hayden’s cello concertos would calm him down, and we all got very familiar with that piece of classical music during summers, when such weather was most common!

Location Seems Critical

Alex may have been somewhat special with regard to storms, or maybe it was just being in a place where severe storms were common. Griffin was a bit different. Although Griffin and Alex shared lab space for many years, again in basement laboratories, all of that time was in Arizona and Massachusetts, where storm ferocity (despite Arizona’s summer monsoon season) just isn’t the same as in the Midwest’s “tornado alley,” and in those spaces we really didn’t observe much reaction in either bird to the storms that passed through. Occasionally, we would notice some restlessness that we could correlate to outside weather, but never the really edgy behavior that Alex had shown in Indiana.

We also have never observed any real distress from either Griffin or Athena in our basement lab at Harvard, except for one storm where the thunderclaps were so loud that they could be easily heard by everyone in the entire building. Not only the birds but also all the humans, more or less, levitated in place. But that was an exception. However, we have noticed some differences in their behavior in the temporary space that we have this summer, with its bank of large windows across one wall.

Both African greys, but particularly Griffin, have reacted to the severe thunderstorms we have experienced this year, and even to some of the milder ones. Athena seems to want to be as close to her favorite humans as possible, even if they are near those windows. But, given that she always likes to be close to her favorite humans, her behavior doesn’t seem to change much. Griffin, in contrast, wants to be as far inside the lab as possible. The birds’ cages are in an alcove area along the wall opposite the windows, and Griff insists that he wants to “go back”; he crawls into his cage and sits on the perch farthest away from the lightning and thunder display! Just rain — even hard rain — doesn’t seem to bother either of them at all; it has to be quite a show to get them to react.

Rain Means Different Things To Different Parrots

For many species, the beginning of just a lot of rain signifies that more food will be available in the near future, and thus triggers the start of a breeding season — and therefore not danger. So maybe it is the unpredictability and novelty of the light and very loud noise that gets to Griffin; he’s had very little prior experience with storms in his 24-year life: He came to me as a 7.5-week-old chick and went right into those basement labs. Athena, in contrast, was 4 months old when she arrived in the lab, may have experienced some spring storms before her arrival, and consequently might just accept them as the norm.

I suspect that parrots may also react very differently depending on where their species originate. Friends tell me that their smaller birds —cockatiels and parakeets — seem to like to bathe when it rains outside. That behavior makes a lot of sense given that these species originate in semi-arid areas in Australia and move around to be near water. To them, the sound of rain means that fresh water will be in abundance, at least momentarily, and that they should take advantage of the opportunities it confers.

For the larger parrots that may live in rainforest areas, water scarcity is usually less of an issue, and rain and mist may be more of a constant part of life. Thus, they may be less likely to react, or at most simply become a bit nervous at the approach of an especially big storm. In any case, if your bird begins to act a bit strangely for what seems to be no reason at all — take a look at the weather forecast and see if that might correlate with this behavioral change!


Breuner, C.W., Sprague, R.S., Patterson, D.H., & Woods, H.A. (2013). Environment, behavior and physiology: do birds use barometric pressure to predict storms? Journal of Experimental Biology, 216,1982-1990.

Metcalfe, J., Schmidt, K.L, Kerr, W.B., Guglielmo, C.G., & MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A. (2013). White-throated sparrows adjust behaviour in response to manipulations of barometric pressure and temperature. Animal Behaviour, 86, 1285-1290.

Albino Magpie At Home In Tasmania

albino magpie

Nature is a “by the books” creator of life. In what is a high percentage of the time, it’s business as usual for the world that constantly speeds past us. But once in a while, nature seemingly looks away and a slight DNA “programming” shift occurs due to a myriad of reasons in the physiology of living things.

When that happens, an anomaly appears. Those “glitches” are often quite fascinating and, in some cases, are picturesque in appearance. Of course, in all cases, such unusual occurrences are definitely worth studying to help determine why they do occur. This is true of birds especially when the bird is quite different in appearance from its kind.

Albino Magpie Found In Tasmania

Recently, an albino magpie was discovered in Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia that encompasses approximately 26,000 square miles. It is vastly wilderness that is home to many protected areas like the Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary, which, coincidentally, is where the young albino magpie was surrendered to. The magpie was discovered at the base of a tree where it was lost from its nest. As is the case with most albino birds, because of their unusual coloration, they are often targeted by their own or easily tracked and killed by predators. These unfortunate scenarios make it virtually impossible for a bird of this condition to exist safely in the wild. When such birds come into being, they are typically alone to fend for themselves.

This rare albino magpie is cared for by the Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary, and is often found living near a resident yellow-tailed black cockatoo. It’s said that this magpie has an interesting and unique character as it enjoys being around people. It definitely enjoys being hand-fed, although it is perfectly capable of getting its own foods. It has a tendency to “converse” with people who find themselves near him. This magpie just enjoys being around people. Maybe it’s the attention it gets. Who doesn’t love a lot of attention?

Leucism Vs. Albinism

Albinism in magpies is unrelated to another coloration issue for birds and other creatures called leucism. Magpie albinism is considered a “one in a million” occurrence. Leucism is a more common condition that creates different color combinations while maintaining many of nature’s intended physical characteristics for the bird. Albinism, by contrast, is a distinct pigmentation issue that creates an all-white appearance and also adds in such quirks like pink eyes. The problem is caused by a complete lack of melatonin.

The Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary is a privately controlled park with 65 acres of safe territory for many creatures, including the endangered Tasmanian devils, marsupials, birds, and reptiles. It is also a sanctuary for many native plants. The sanctuary offers a variety of daily tours as well as educational workshops. In addition, the park is vested in conservation efforts with housing and fenced care for some of the Tasmanian devils the park is active with. For the magpie of this story, we wish him a long, long life, and continued happiness among those who come to see him.

Photographer Travels The Globe To Capture “Birdscapes”

In the ’60s, a Chicago-based photographer by the name of Owen Deutsch worked in the fashion industry before retiring 20 years later in 1986 to pursue other successful endeavors. In 2002, Mr. Deutsch discovered birding as a hobby, and soon was deeply entrenched in the business of photographing birds, and other living things. From butterflies to birds, Deutsch applied his highly developed and much adored photography skills to create timeless works of art. Those works are now celebrated worldwide via his many accounts that include Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and his own, high-traffic website. Needless to say, Deutsch has captured the imagination of birding enthusiasts everywhere.

For much of his time, Owen has traveled the world to capture via camera as many birds as he could. It is an expressed recognition of his that conservation is increasingly important to the preservation of many species. His stated goal has long been to photograph as many birds (and other creatures) in their native habitat before the unfortunate and demanding needs of mankind eliminates many of them, never to be seen again other than by photographs and film/video.

A Book Celebrating Birds

Recently, Owen Deutsch designed and released a rich display of his photography where birds are concerned in a beautiful, coffee table-styled book. The book is called “Bringing Back The Birds: Exploring Migration And Preserving Birdscapes Throughout The Americas.” In this specialty book, 225 of his best photos are laid out in gorgeous full-color on high-quality paper stock. In addition to an already stunning display of birds, expansive text is supplied to each photo to not only describe the photo itself but to teach. The book is introduced by a poem by the great author Margaret Atwood (whose “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a classic story that is also a successful series for Hulu, three seasons deep as of this writing). Throughout the book are contributed essays written by luminaries like author, Jonathan Franzen (who wrote the foreword for this book), the Director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Dr. Pete Marra, and Director of the world-renowned Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, ornithologist John Fitzpatrick.

Helping Birds In The Wild

What stands out most about this collectible 208-page book of exquisite bird photography is the fact that Deutsch has donated 100% of the profits from the sales of this book to the American Bird Conservancy. The royalties are ear-marked for the American Bird Conservancy conservation efforts in their Americas quest to preserve the species of our world’s birds before they disappear. It is Owen Deutsch’s shared concern that our world has become far too dangerous to the birds at large. The publication of “Bringing Back the Birds” was expressly brought to fruition to readily assist in helping remedy this increasing reality of possible extinction.

Reviews for this wonderfully priced book have been five-star. With its informative content, its great collection of pictures from a world-celebrated photographer, and choice endorsements and contributions from world-class authors and ornithology professionals, “Bringing Back The Birds” is likely an important and enjoyable book for many bird fan libraries.

Parrots Who Paint!

As the human race progresses, our art becomes more and more defining of us. Art is immeasurably appreciable across so many formats and eloquently expresses many thought processes. Without it, we might be unable to move forward properly. With all of its properties, the variance of art tells so many tales. Thus far, we are primarily focused on art made by the species of humankind. But never let it be said that our species is the only one capable of producing art. If you wonder why I’d say that, then ask PicassoPicasso, the parrot, that is.

Picasso The Feathered Painter

Picasso is a 12-year-old, female, blue & gold macaw who arrived at the Tracy Aviary back in 2009 as a surrendered pet. While, typically, this aviary does not take in abandoned birds, an exception was made for Picasso as space was available. With a previous life as a large bird housed within a small cage and kept in a basement, usually alone, Picasso had developed a shyness and obvious discomfort around large crowds that would take time to rectify. Fortunately, the fine people that make up Tracy Aviary allowed Picasso the time needed to warm up, a rule that they apply to all of their birds. One of the projects applied to Picasso to help her use up time and create a positive approach was painting. What happened afterward became a tale worth recounting.

Picasso — so named after her newfound love — learned to paint by holding a sponge in her beak, dipping the sponge into paint, and then creating her unique art on a canvas. She immediately found the practice to be comforting, and her nervousness around crowds dissipated. Picasso became an ambassador bird and while she does paint in front of crowds at times, it is her ability to easily engage in one-on-one painting events with people that revealed her best side. As a result, Tracy Aviary introduced a new program whereby people were able to book a private session with Picasso for a set fee and keep the finished canvas afterward.

The program is called Paint With Picasso. The event allows for one or two participants to select the colors that they want on the 11” by 14”canvas, and let Picasso do her thing. The unique painting is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, plus the participants get a personal picture of Picasso. Trainers are on hand to provide a richer experience during the session. Picasso has become a happy bird and contributes to not only her own well-being via her painting skills, but also gives an unusual personal perspective of her “thought processes” immortalized on canvas. If you were to view any of the world’s fascination with abstract art, you’d find that the art created by Picasso has something to say…at least from Picasso’s perspective. Currently, Picasso is being worked with to identify the base colors of the paints she uses. This should go a long way in further directing Picasso’s personal brush strokes.

DaVinci’s Parrot Style

Picasso isn’t the only bird at Tracy Aviary that has undertaken the bohemian life of an artist. She’s joined by a great green macaw known as DaVinci. DaVinci is 8 years old and was brought to the Aviary (along with his sister, Dali) to be an ambassador bird. Difficulties with flying encouraged the caretakers to involve DaVinci in painting, something that he took to with relish. Interestingly, the art produced by DaVinci has no comparison to the art created by Picasso, which should tell you something. As it is, Picasso is quite accomplished with precision strokes, while DaVinci utilizes a broader, more intense approach to his artwork. In fact, one of DaVinci’s works now hangs in the Ara Project Visitor Center located in Costa Rica. (Tracy Aviary helps to financially support the efforts of the Ara Project’s Great Green Macaw reintroduction program in Costa Rica. Being Great Green Macaws, DaVinci, and his sister, Dali, help in this effort for the endangered bird species they are a part of.) Tracy Aviary also offers a Paint With DaVinci one-on-one experience.

Should you find yourself in Salt Lake City, and are interested in booking a private session with Picasso, navigate here to their site. Tracy Aviary engages in a wide variety of bird-centric events that allow people of all ages to become more aware and appreciative of the birds they engage with. You can join their Facebook page to keep tabs on things.

Thanks to Helen Dishaw of Tracy Aviary for her contributions to this article.


Summer Heat & Our Birds

Your bird might especially appreciate a spritzing with water during summer months.

Summer — that sizzling time of the year when we try to stay hydrated and perhaps indulge in water-dense foods like watermelon and other juicy fruits. When exposed to the summer heat, we might break out in a sweat and seek shade to cool our bodies down. What about our feathered friends…how do they stay cool? Here are some interesting facts about birds and heat, and tips for helping our feathered companions stay comfortable all summer long.

Birds Do Not Sweat

A sparrow takes a dip in a puddle.

Birds lack sweat glands, so you will not see sweat rolling down your bird’s body feathers or facial feathers no matter how hot it is. Nor will you feel sweaty bird feet when you bird is perched on your hand. If you see moisture on your bird, he or she most likely took a dunk in the water dish. Wild birds dip into puddles, birdbaths and other water sources to shake their feathers so that the droplets reach their skin. Similarly, our pet birds also might seek out ways to cool themselves down with water.

Feathers Help Control Body Temperature

Feathers are more than just a means for a bird to achieve flight. Feathers offer insulation, which helps birds stay warm during cool months. Much as we pull our jacket zippers up when we feel a chill, a bird might hold their feathers tightly against the body to preserve body heat. During warm months, a bird feeling the heat might fluff their feathers as a way to “ventilate” … like us unzipping our jackets. However, a bird with fluffed feathers and drooped wings accompanied by open beak panting is showing signs of heat stress, which is much more than simply feeling uncomfortable during hot weather. A bird displaying this behavior needs to be taken to a cool area right away and misted with cool (think room temperature, not frigid) water.

Not Raised “Sun Ready”

A bird who spends most of their time indoors should not be left in direct sunlight for long (less than 20 minutes), and should not be left unattended. If you start to see signs of heat stress, bring your bird to a shady area or indoors and spray him or her with room-temperature water (frigid water can cause a bird to go into shock).

Help Your Bird Stay Hydrated

Summer heat, combined with the fact that many birds enjoy dunking food in water, can combine for a bacteria-laden water bowl. Be diligent about replacing your bird’s drinking water throughout the day. A fun way to help your bird stay hydrated is to offer him or her fresh, water-dense fruit like watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumber (yes, it has seeds, therefore a fruit!) and pineapple.

Winning Bird Photos

Bald Eagle and red fox. Photo: Kevin Ebi/Audubon Photography Awards

In what is an anticipated tradition, the Audubon Society, in conjunction with Canon, sponsors an annual photography contest awarding the most talented of photo captures in three categories (Professional, Amateur, and Youth). This year, there were a whopping 2,253 entrants from every state in the Unites States, and from 10 Canadian provinces. In every year since the Awards’ 2010 beginning, a wealth of stunning and beautiful images has been recognized. For us, it’s always a pleasure to see what new and powerful images come to our attention as a result of the winning bird photos in the Audubon Photography Awards.

Red-Winged Blackbird (Kathrin Swoboda/Audubon Photography Awards/2019 Grand Prize Winner)

The Professional and Amateur groups are eligible for a $5,000 Grand Prize winner for the most captivating shot. Individually, both categories are eligible for prizes of $2,500. For the Youth category (13-17), there are no cash prizes awarded. Instead, six days at the Audubon Hog Island Photography Camp is awarded to the winner and an accompanying parent/guardian. That prize includes all expenses (airfare, transportation, hotel, food).

There are two brand new awards for 2019. The Plants for Birds prize is awarded for the most entrancing photo capture of a bird subject along with clearly identifiable plants that are native to the location the photo was taken from. The Fisher Prize recognizes photography with the highest score in Originality, and Artistic Merit.

As always, all photos judged must not be exploitative in any manner whatsoever. They must be shot in the wild. All birds photos must not be indicative of any disturbances (use of drones, no luring, no pre-set nest boxes, etc.) The Audubon Society Photography Contest is the granddaddy of bird-related photography for everyone to enjoy.

Grand Prize Winner

For this year’s contest, the Grand Prize was awarded to Kathrin Swoboda. Selected from the Amateur batch of photos, her early morning photo capture of a Red-Winged Blackbird shows the frosty exhalations of the bird as it heartily sang its morning tune. Using the dark background of a forest, the “breath-taking” shot created a bit of timeless magic. Kathrin Swoboda used a Nikon D500 camera with a 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens.

Professional Winner

The Professional category (for photographers that earned $5,000 or more annually from sales of their photos) yielded a strong winner in Elizabeth Boehm. Her photograph of a pair of fighting Greater Sage-Grouse against a stark white snowpack created an artistic display of dominance as the two males battled for the attention of a mate. For this extraordinary shot, Elizabeth Boehm used a Canon EOS 6D outfitted with a powerful Canon 500mm EF f/4 L IS USM lens.

Amateur Winner

The Amateur category produces a winner in Mariam Kamal. Her stunning photo shot of a White-Necked Jacobin, a southern region hummingbird, as it extracted nectar from a heliconia plant, was too good to ignore. The location was a nature park from Costa Rica. Mariam Kamal used a Nikon D3300 with a Tamron SP AF 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. It was taken in strong, forceful winds making the photo capture all the more impressive.

Youth Winner

The Youth category provided a winner in Sebastian Velasquez. This winning photograph shows an artistic view of a Horned Puffin as it delicately preened its feathers. The dark background adds to the capture providing a portrait-like photo for the moment. Sebastian Velasquez acquired this winning photograph using a Canon EOS Rebel t7i with a Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens.

Honorable Mention Bird Photos

The Amateur Honorable Mention was awarded to Melissa Rowell. Her photograph of a pair of dueling Great Blue Heron birds displayed a magnificent show of expression during the battle.

The Honorable Mention in the Professional category went to Kevin Ebi, whose capture of a Bald Eagle attempting to wrest control of a rabbit previously snared by a fox won the moment. For the photo, the eagle actually has the not only the rabbit in the air, it also has the fox. With the fox unwilling to dismissively part with its dinner, the eagle carried both creatures about 20 feet into the air before the fox let go. (The fox landed unharmed.) The winning photo is a rare ‘right place, right time’ moment.

For the Youth Honorable Mention, the win went to Garrett Sheets, whose outstanding photo of a Black-White Bobolink against a strong golden background of grasses was a beautiful cap to the category.

New Category Winners

For 2019, as noted above, there were two new categories instituted. The first new category, Plants for Birds was easily won by Michael Schulte. His shot of a Hooded Oriole gathering nesting fibers from a palm branch in San Diego, thereby celebrating both the bird and the indigenous plant of the area. Michael Schulte used a Canon 7D Mark II camera with a Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC lens. The Honorable Mention for this new category went to Joseph Przybyla. He snapped a frontal picture of a Purple Gallinule as it moved from branch to branch.

The other category is the Fisher Prize, so named for Audubon’s longtime Creative Director Kevin Fisher to honor his legacy. This photo win was awarded to Ly Dang, who used a Nikon D850 with a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED AF-S VR lens for the deep shot. This artistic photo features the gazing eye of a beautiful Black-Browed Albatross in the Falkland Islands against the vibrant white color of its head.

See The Other Winning Bird Photos

You can view all nine of the amazing 2019 Audubon Photography Awards’ winning images at this link. The six judges employed for the tough work that lay before them are to be congratulated for their sharp and discerning eyes. The difficulty in selecting these few works of photographic art from among many works of camera art had to be one of their most challenging moments

Congratulations to the winners of each category!



Do Parrots Understand What You Are Saying?

grey parrotParrots Can Understand What They Are Saying…But It Depends on You!

Those with companion birds like to think that their birds can understand what both the owner and the birds themselves are saying, and often ask me if that is possible. My answer is that it is definitely “possible,” but that the answer depends on the type of interactions the parrots have with their owners. A bit of background will help explain my response.

1. Flock Safety

The first, most important, issue is that parrots are flock animals. A parrot alone in the wild has almost zero chance of surviving — it cannot both watch for predators and forage successfully. Thus, parrots are almost always in groups — often small subsets of the entire flock — where they rotate the job of “sentinel”: the bird that keeps watch while the others feed. While in Australia, I saw a juvenile rosella, all alone at the top of a tree, screaming loudly. It was clearly in distress, and being so noticeable would make it a target for any predator in range. The bird knew, however, that its only chance of surviving was to find the rest of its flock; it would not last long by itself.

2. Contact Calling

The second issue is that one of the main ways that parrots maintain their bonds with one another, often while hidden in foliage, is by vocalizing. We know that these vocalization are so important for identifying who is a flock member that some parrot species have flock dialects to ensure group cohesion. Interestingly, juveniles may learn a novel dialect if they find themselves in a new flock, but older birds are willing to fly long distances to return to their natal flock if they have been displaced by researchers (see Salinas-Melgoza & Wright, 2012). These data provide additional evidence for the importance of being in a flock, particularly for the use of specific “contact calls” to keep in touch with flock-mates.

3. Single Bird Or A Flock Member?

The third issue, that is relevant for bird stewards, is whether their bird is part of a group of parrots or a singleton. A bird that is part of a flock (in captivity, even a mixed-species flock) may or may not care to learn human speech or other human-related noises, as it has natural compatriots with whom it can whistle, call, and interact. The bird’s willingness to learn a human system, therefore, depends on how much it wants to connect with the humans in its life compared to the other birds. A bird that is a singleton, however, will try extremely hard to become integrated into its human “flock.”

4. Learning the Human’s “Contact Call”

And that brings up the fourth issue: What happens in the singleton case depends almost entirely on human behavior. If the parrot is not given much input, it will use what it observes in its environment in order to develop what it thinks are contact calls. It will see its human run to the microwave when the machine beeps — and figure that maybe a human will pay attention and come to it if it “beeps.” Ditto for the ring tone on a mobile phone, or the routine calls amongst family members, or other sorts of noises that attract humans. Too, if the only thing the bird hears in one-to-one conversation during the day from its human companions is something like “Who’s a pretty boy?” when its cage cover is lifted in the morning, that is what it will learn for a contact call. And that is all it will learn, and obviously it will not understand the meaning of the phrase.

In contrast, if an owner takes the time and energy to work with the bird, the parrot can learn the meaning of the speech it hears and produces. The most effective way to achieve such understanding involves the model/rival technique that I described in a previous blog, in which two humans demonstrate for the bird the use of relevant labels. As many people already know, I’ve shown that African grey parrots can, for example, learn labels for objects, colors, shapes, numbers, categories, and concepts in this manner. What we try to do in my lab is demonstrate the full extent of possible learning, and, not surprisingly, few owners can invest the same level of time and energy into training as does my research team.

African grey
Alex could respond to “What toy?”, “How many?”, “What’s same/different?” and “What color bigger/smaller?”

However, birds can learn some labels simply by association, if the labels represent things that are important in their lives. If an owner consistently labels each food upon presentation, and labels the various toys upon presentation, the colors and shapes of the toys along with the relevant category (“Here’s your BALL! The color is GREEN!”); if the owner consistently labels the site where the bird is being placed (“We’re going to the CAGE”) and various frequently occurring actions (“Want SHOWER?”), the bird will very often learn these labels so that it can request objects, actions, and to be placed at sites. Different birds will have different levels of motivation, different levels of learning, and different levels of speech clarity, so results are sure to vary. However, parrots are NOT simply mindless mimics — unless their owners treat them as such!

It is therefore up to the human caretaker to decide whether its parrot companion will have the chance to learn to engage in some form of meaningful communication, or simply learn a few party tricks. Given that these birds have the intelligence of about an 8-year-old child(e.g., Pepperberg et al., 2017, 2018), I for one believe that we certainly should give them the chance to develop to their full potential. We humans have to invest our time and energy, but the parrots will very likely try to reward our efforts.


Clements, K., Gray, S.L., Gross, B., & Pepperberg, I.M. (2018). Initial evidence for probabilistic learning by a Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology. 132:166-177.

Pepperberg, I.M., Gray, S., Lesser, J.S., & Hartsfield, L.A. (2017). Piagetian liquid conservation in Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 131:370-383.

Salinsas-Melgoza, A., & Wright, T.F. (2012). Evidence for vocal learning and limited dispersal as dual mechanisms for dialect maintenance in a parrot. PLoS ONE 7(11):e48667.

From “Problem Parrot” to TV Star

Lara Joseph and cockatoo Rocky at the Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania, Ohio

In our world, the adherence to time as a measurement to determine what we do and what we choose not to do is an adopted standard. Simply put, there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a life. With this reality, we make choices. Some choices work out good endings, others produce unfortunate results. It’s not that humanity is inherently bad or selfish, it’s that time is an essence that requires thought and effort. When one goes against the usually accepted process to terminate what might become a wasted effort, then we have someone who has decided to dedicate precious resources of valuable time to create change to what might be thought of as unchangeable. With that, we look at the immense dedication of Lara Joseph.

Lara Joseph is an animal behavior consultant and trainer at a life-choice she owns, The Animal Behavior Center. Located in Sylvania, Ohio, this center was established in 2013 to provide intensive training, a series of workshops and enrichment projects, along with plenty of patience and love to those creatures deemed needful in the behavioral process.

With these selections of helpful services available to people with problematic creatures, The Animal Behavior Center actively seeks to restore a social aspect that has been neglected, as well as dealing with a myriad of pet anxieties. In addition, there are unfortunate physical problems that need to be attended to, abnormalities like blindness, deafness, and other life-defying disabilities. Lara Joseph has made it her life’s work to restore normality as best as can be achieved for the creatures she comes into contact with…like Rocky.

In 2006, Lara acquired a cockatoo that had been scheduled to be euthanized because of his unsocial behavior. He would bite frequently, fly at people aggressively, and exhibit other adverse behaviors.  The bird, a Moluccan cockatoo, was 8 years old when he came to the attention of Lara, who, having undertaken extensive training in behavioral sciences felt that she could change the bird’s unwanted behavior patterns. She adopted the bird, thereby saving it from being euthanized.

Helping Rocky

It was determined that Rocky did not understand human intentions because of improper handling. Lara revealed that Rocky was screaming for attention, something that he likely had with a previous owner. With her skilled observance, she noted that Rocky was reacting in ways that indicated he was being forced to do things, like “Step up,” or “Go back to the cage,” all resulting in lunging and biting. With that knowledge, she was able to show Rocky other ways to communicate and to react in ways that wasn’t aggressive. Over the years, she has effectively changed Rocky Valentine’s (as he is now named) conduct to that of what is considered highly socialized. His displays of love and acceptance are a grand testament to the dedication of Lara Joseph. And this has led to his becoming a commercial star.

Recently, Rocky Valentine was chosen by Stanley Steemer to star in a series of “That’s Gross…but it happens” commercials with a dog named Toby. Toby’s untidy behavior prompts hilarious reactions by Rocky. You can see a collection of four of those Stanley Steemer commercials here.

Rocky Valentine is but one of the fortunate creatures being helped by Lara Joseph. A quick trip to her well-designed website will underline all of her experiences with certain pets in a blog, as well as offer a series of highly effectual classes and services that will bring new life to creatures in need of help. She has a weekly live-streamed video called Coffee With The Critters. Overall, she offers her extensive knowledge to zoos, aviaries, shelters, sanctuaries, and individuals the world around.  You can access her Facebook page here, and her website here.

This article is more about Lara Joseph and her willingness to step outside the constraints of time to effect change, as it is about Rocky Valentine. She is a part of a growing collection of people who willingly place their personal lives on hold to make the lives of creatures a positive one.

The Resplendent Nicobar Pigeon

Nicobar PigeonOur vast world is quite a splash of natural design and color. From the uniqueness of a raindrop splatter, the individual characteristics of an iris, the shape and form of a flower or plant, and the genetic coding of anything that lives, nature has created awe-inspiring blueprints for everything that we can see and hold. With birds, the design and coloring of any species can be delighted in.

Exotic birds often contain amazing displays of colors and patterns that send our hearts fluttering. Given their size and the opportunity to be more detailed over larger areas of their bodies, exotic birds are nature’s expression of beautiful artwork. One such work of art is the Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica).

The Nicobar Pigeon is a resplendent bird with a distinct and vibrant collection of hackles, which are long and narrow black/purple feathers extending from their neck. These long feathers adorn a green and blue iridescent back, and complement their wings of green, rust red, blue, and copper colors.

These unique birds are the only bird alive of a subfamily that once included the extinct Dodo bird. They can be found primarily in the tropical island areas of Southeast Asia including Vietnam, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from where the bird acquired its name. The pigeon is about one and a half feet in size, with the female slightly smaller. The Nicobar pigeon is a monogamous bird, mating for life with a single female.

Near Threatened

Unfortunately, the Nicobar Pigeon is listed as Near Threatened. They are rapidly disappearing at a rate that could soon have them on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) scale for a Threatened species. The bird’s natural diet consists of seed, fruit, and buds. In order to grind hard to digest foods, this pigeon has a gizzard stone (or stomach stone). These birds are often hunted and killed for their stones, which are used in jewelry and sold. This pigeon is also sought after as a food source, which contributes to their advancing decimation.

The Nicobar pigeon is also sought after as an exotic pet. Currently, being threatened, they are not available in the United State or other locations as an easily acquired bird as a pet. Being on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) list makes it illegal for them to be traded at all. Legal captive-breeding is allowed primarily for zoos.

Saving The Nicobar

Many zoos around the world have formed a coalition known as the Nicobar Pigeon Species Survival Plan. A population of  approximately 450 to 500 birds are housed in 55 institutions and are kept as “insurance” against possible extinction. The plan is also a formal breeding and transfer activity to train these birds to adapt and proliferate in protected areas. While the Nicobar pigeon population can be trusted to grow, it is the declining availability of suitable habitats for nesting that is a formidable problem. It is one that is being taken into account as training for the plan birds.

The Nicobar pigeon is quite a beautiful bird. With its unique appearance, its gentle demeanor, and typical fearlessness among humans, they can be enjoyed for what they are in protected areas and zoos. Nature has gifted us with a wide variety of colorful creations. It’s our established responsibility to protect their livelihood, their existence, and their habitats from destruction and extinction.


Pepperberg’s Lab: African Greys Get a Skyline View

African greyMy lab space at Harvard is perfect for both my birds and my students. Some folks may object to the fact that it is in the basement, but we have panels of full-spectrum lights in the ceiling and full-spectrum floor lamps under which the birds can choose to sun themselves. We are in a back corner of the building, so that there is very little extraneous noise and few distractions. The space itself is designed to look a bit like a studio apartment. We have a “kitchen” corner, with shelving, a sink (even with a special hot water spigot for students’ tea; they also get to use a Keurig if they prefer coffee), undersink storage, and a workspace. Next to it is our apartment-sized fridge, atop of which sits a microwave to cook the birds’ grains, and a dispenser for fluoridated spring water.

We have a “living room” corner, with two comfy armchairs and a coffee table, where students and birds can just hang out in between sessions. One wall above the chairs is lined with bookshelves for more storage, with cabinets below. On the opposite wall is another bookcase for the birds’ exemplars and treats, next to which sit their large cages. The final wall has a table with underneath storage, the lab manager’s desk, and yet another bookcase—this one has our printer and mostly storage for Alex Foundation materials. We use the middle of the room for sessions, and the birds definitely understand the difference between work and play areas. It’s really cozy. And for those of you who understand university politics, it’s also an area that would not have much appeal for any other laboratory, so that it is easier for us to keep the area long-term.

Room With A View

Occasionally, however, we have to move. This summer, the university is replacing the building’s air-handler (equipment that is about 50 years old and definitely on its last legs), which means lots of jack-hammering and loud construction noise pretty much right next door to us. Without my having to say anything, my colleagues began searching for temporary quarters, and in late May we moved into what had been the office of a full professor who left for a different position. The space abuts my own office, so I’m the only one who could be disturbed if the birds become raucous—a very important issue. Thankfully, the move occurred without a hitch, and the birds are adjusting very well.

Probably one reason for their adjustment is that we had been in this space before. A few years ago, the university performed major renovations in the entire basement area, and we had to relocate then as well. This year’s move brought back memories of the earlier move, that also went quite well but did have a few disconcerting moments, primarily because the space is on the 8th floor.

Let me explain. The beauty of our temporary above-ground space is a wall of windows looking out toward the Boston skyline. It’s the same view I have from my office, and it is absolutely breath-taking, particularly at sunset, when the light bounces off the skyscrapers across the river, and the sky is full of streaks of orange, pink, mauve, and gold. During the day, the room has an abundance of natural light, and both Griffin and Athena enjoy sitting on perches on the windowsills and sunning themselves. The problem with this space, however, is also these gorgeous windows.

Hawk Encounters

The issue is the pair of red-tailed hawks that have nested nearby for years. The hawks (dubbed Henry and Henrietta by the psychology graduate students) and their offspring prosper exceedingly well, likely a consequence of the squirrel and pigeon populations in nearby Harvard Square and Harvard Yard. Henry and Henrietta definitely appear to understand something about the windows in my fifteen-story building, because they know to fly carefully along its sides and otherwise never seemed to pay much attention to the structure.

When we were in the same temporary space a few years ago, however, the hawks were clearly intrigued by the gray, sort of pigeon-like, birds sitting in the windows. They would fly close enough that Griffin and Athena would undeniably take note. Surprisingly, the parrots didn’t give their danger calls, didn’t ask to be moved, or try to get away, but they would stop preening, go on alert, and very intently stare out the window. Neither bird had had much experience with windows, but both had had some experience with mirrors, and thus probably knew something about the impenetrable properties of glass. Whether it was the fact that the hawks were flying in parallel rather than approaching the window, or the parrots’ understanding of the barrier, something kept them from truly alarming.

The parrots did, nevertheless, seem to understand the difference between the hawks and the pigeons, sparrows, and other avian species that flew by; they would totally ignore the latter. Just like Alex, who had become alarmed at his first sight of an owl even though he had had no previous experience with any predator, Griffin and Athena seemed to have some ingrained notion of what was and was not dangerous. However, unlike Alex, they didn’t seem to be overly alarmed. I know that Alex was the offspring of wild-caught parents; all I know about Griff and Athena was that they were hatched in the US—maybe with respect to wild-caught parents they are second- rather than first-generation offspring and their ingrained responses are muted? Or maybe, as I noted above, the hawks just weren’t acting in a very threatening manner.

Thankfully, so far (at least as I write this in mid-June), the hawks have not yet made an appearance at our windows. Maybe they haven’t yet discovered our return, maybe they’ve moved their nest a bit further away. In any case, as much as I love all wildlife, I’m very thankful that my parrots can get their dose of sunlight in peace!


A Game Perfect For Bird Enthusiasts

Wingspan gameBirds are everywhere. Of course they are. Look up to the skies and see flocks of them on their way to a better place. They’re in your yards and gardens, giving you heart-fluttering moments as you find a favorite that comes visiting. They’re in books, artwork, jewelry, action photos, and movies. And the serious exotic bird enthusiast gets to personally interact with a beautiful parrot as an integral part of a family. Now you get an extra opportunity to expand and test your already incredible bird knowledge with a bird-centric board game. Check out Wingspan!

Wingspan is a board game that wants you to become an avid bird enthusiast (as if you’re not already!) and strive to attract a wide, co-habiting array of birds to your wildlife preserve. Since it’s a game, you are in competition with the other players in Wingspan, who are also trying to do the same — getting the birds to go to THEIR wildlife preserve and aviary instead of yours. The end goal is to gain the top number of accumulated points, acquired by shrewd playing skills. The typical length of a game is four competitive rounds, played in approximately an hour’s worth of time.

Wingspan game cards

Birds Are In The Cards

Wingspan itself is a beautiful collection of 170 detailed cards of selected birds, 42 playable extra cards to assist you in your advancement, assorted games pieces like colorful bird eggs, food tokens, five painted wooden player dice and a bird house dice tower to help randomize the dice in play, five player mats, a goal mat, scorepads with two degrees of difficulty (front and back), and more.

Each of the cards portrays a bird in beautiful drawn artwork, with statistics, point values, and advantages listed. The game is played by drawing and discarding cards as you advance through the world as ornithologists, researchers, collectors, and bird-watchers. Correct and well-thought out use of food tokens helps to improve the chances of getting birds to become attracted to your aviary and preserve with the hope of higher numbers. You use the miniature egg pieces as an indication of eggs laid for your attracted birds.

More To Explore In Wingspan

Of course, the game play is much more complex than mere bird selection. You want them to choose your preserve. This write-up is intended as an alert to something that might appeal to the dedicated bird fan, especially those who are fans of an intricate and busy gaming environment. Explicit details of gameplay are for you to discover and to enjoy.

Wingspan game diceSince its release in March of 2019, sales have been above expectations. Currently, the game publisher is on its third run of Wingspan. Wingspan is a published game by Stonemaier Games. It was pitched to them by Elizabeth Hargrave, a “geeky” birding enthusiast who uses a strong system of evolving gameplay with accuracy drawn from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird databases as well as other intensive resources. There are available card updates for previous releases that add to and correct mistakes found.

Facebook has a burgeoning community of Wingspan players, over 5,000 enthusiasts of the game thus far. There, you can find help with gameplay, provide unique strategies, or otherwise communicate with a range of fans. If you’re interested in Wingspan, go to its website for a clearer look, especially if you want a copy of the game for yourself. There’s even a YouTube video of actual Wingspan gameplay.

It looks to be quite a game experience.


A Look at How Parrots Talk

macaw portraitFor many companion bird enthusiasts, one of the extreme thrills they experience is the fact that small groups of birds talk (or mimic). It doesn’t take long for some species to pick up on a word, sound, or phrase. After it has learned, well…it is something you are likely to hear often. It’s quite fun to not only amuse yourself with their innate ability to mimic words with amazing precision, but it’s more likely enjoyable to show off what your pet bird can say. In today’s world, that often translates to the myriad of YouTube videos seen across the popular platform. But exactly, how does the able bird talk? What’s the science of it?

No Lips, No Problem

Birds do not possess lips to help them form words properly. They depend on a different ability to produce proper formation, the use of vibrating independent membranes. While birds have a larynx, its use is different in a bird than a human. We use our larynx as tool that allow for the pitch and volume of words being formed. Birds, however, do not have their vocal folds in their larynx. Instead, the vocal folds used to vocalize are found in what is known as the syrinx. The syrinx is located below the larynx, at the lower end of the trachea (wind pipe). With this internal part, birds can produce a range of sounds much as we do. They produce pitch and volume by changing the pressure of the forced air from lungs into the syrinx, and exercising the muscles of the syrinx.

While all birds use the syrinx to create wide varieties of bird songs, the parrots, including parakeets (budgies) ravens, mynah birds, and crows are able to produce exact sounds – like phrases and words. In fact, birds can vibrate the outer membranes of their syrinx to produce more than one sound at the same time. Why? Because the two sides of the syrinx in a bird can be controlled independently.

The lyrebird is so good at recreating source sounds that it can mimic the motorized sound of a camera shutter. People with birds that “talk” often observe their own birds to change some things up when repeating learned words and phrases. Not long ago, a parrot was able to recreate the exchanges between a victim and perpetrator at a domestic murder scene that helped to implicate the responsible individual. Amazingly, dialect and enunciations of words can be flawlessly mimicked by a bird able to do the trick.

According to Irene Pepperberg, a prominent and well-respected avian expert, the reasoning behind parrots willingly learning to vocalize words and phrases is the need to become a part of the “flock,” or, in a more proper sense, a part of the family that is forming around it. People become an integral part of the bird’s “flock.” The mimicked speech is an important form of interaction between the bird and the human elements of its flock. However, birds likely have zero idea of any of what they’re mimicking actually means. They’re just simply doing what nature has equipped them to do, and that is to stay focused and alert. To do that, they need to become a strong member of the flock, whatever that is to them.

This ability to mimic speech makes us feel close to a pet parrot as it feels like they have complete understanding, and are, therefore, communicating with us. And while the differences are night and day between the human and the parrot (or other mimicking-able bird) as to what is going on, the shared experiences are quite endearing. As a result, bird owners have a unique bond with their birds. All in all, it’s a beautiful part of the experience.

Playing With Fire: Tobacco & Pet Birds

cockatoo portraitTobacco is bad for birds (and humans and dogs and cats and … well, everyone!). I thought I would take this opportunity to point out some specifics, though, so those who do smoke can do their best to keep their feathered friends safe. Please keep in mind that other inhaled substances such as marijuana and vaping products are equally bad for birds.

3 Dangers Of Tobacco Cigarettes

First, there is the smoke itself. Birds have very sensitive respiratory systems because their system of lung sacs does not filter toxins the way our lungs do. We know how deadly nonstick coatings are for birds, for this very reason. Birds also breathe much faster than we do, so their exposure to smoke can be greater. There was a reason miners took canaries into the coalmines! If you must smoke, it is best to smoke outside and away from any air intake that could bring the smoke indoors.

Another big concern with smoking is the nicotine that gets on the furniture, walls, and every surface exposed to the smoke, including companion animals. Even if you smoke outdoors, nicotine gets on your hands and clothing. Birds exposed to nicotine can develop dingy, dirty, greasy feathers, whether directly from smoke or from handling by someone with nicotine on their hands. When the bird preens its feathers, it ingests nicotine, which is poisonous. Because nicotine cannot be easily removed from feathers, some birds resort to plucking. Nicotine on the feet causes dermatitis. If you have to smoke, be sure to scrub your hands and any exposed skin with soap and water prior to handling your birds.

Make sure you dispose of all cigarette butts far away from where a curious beak can get at them. Even a small butt can contain up to 25% of the nicotine in a whole cigarette, and birds that swallow nicotine often die rapidly, within 15 to 30 minutes. Signs of nicotine poisoning include twitching, excitability, salivating, vomiting, seizures, collapse, and death.

Never Use Electronic-Cigarettes Around Birds

The newest tobacco product danger is e-cigarettes, which are used for vaping. Liquid-containing nicotine and an assortment of other chemicals is put in a chamber that is heated, giving off a vapor that is inhaled. Touted as safer than smoking cigarettes, the jury is still out on this. In addition to the direct toxicity of nicotine, vaping solutions may also contain antifreeze components, formaldehyde, and at least two dozen other toxic chemicals. Vaping around your birds can be just as dangerous as smoking around them. In addition, the nicotine solution is far more concentrated than the nicotine in cigarettes, so if your bird were to swallow any of it, there is a high risk of rapid death. Simply put, do not vape around your birds.

Keep Matches Out Of Reach

Finally, a word about matches. Modern safety matches have tips coated with potassium chlorate, sulfur, starch, and a few other ingredients. The striking surface has red phosphorus, which causes a small explosion when the match head is struck on it. We all know birds love to chew on wood, so a match laying around, either before or after being ignited, can look just like a toy to a bird. Ingestion can cause acute poisoning and death, so be sure to store unused matches out of birds’ reach, and keep used matches far away from birds. Better yet, run them under cold water and then throw them in the garbage.

People use matches for many reasons, not just smoking, so all you nonsmokers out there take care also! Some people leave matches out in bathrooms (no, they do not neutralize the smell, they just mask it) and forget the matches are there and easily accessible to a wandering bird, so be sure to keep them safely contained.

If you have friends or family that smoke, these rules apply to them too. Make sure people who smoke do not handle your birds until they are thoroughly scrubbed up!

“Does your parrot smoke? If you do, the answer is yes.” — Elizabeth Opperman, Parrot Examiner  (8/6/2011)


Building A Legacy One Bluebird Nest Box At A Time

Al Larson, “The Bluebird Man” Photo by Matthew Podolsky

As we breathe and roam this vast planet, many of us contemplate our sense of purpose. Many books have been written, many lectures and speeches have been spoken, and many dreams have been dreamt, all to help us achieve an acceptable reason in our varied existence on Earth. Some of us never really find our reasons but nonetheless live out satisfying lives filled with laughter, enjoyment, and yes, sometimes sadness. But sometimes, some people take extraordinary steps to validate a life that many of us might consider a beautiful gift. Many of those extraordinary works end up being celebrated long after they’ve been performed, sometimes for an eternity. With those inspiring acts of beauty and intent, we as a communal world of hope find our collective existence wonderfully improved upon. The following story of Al Larson, AKA “Bluebird Man,” underscores a successful attempt to help stem a declining bluebird population in his home state of Idaho.

Birth Of The Bluebird Nest Box Plan

Larson read a copy of “National Geographic” magazine with one particular article standing out. The article described how building nest houses could have a positive impact on the rapidly disappearing bluebird population. With a dependency on dead or near dead trees for nests due to easy access to previously made cavities in such trees, the bluebirds were finding that their nest locations of choice were disappearing for several reasons. With Larson’s fateful read of the article, he began to put together a plan of building nest boxes for the struggling species, at least in southern Idaho.

Bluebirds Benefit From Decades Of  Nest Boxes

Almost 40 years ago, at the age of 60, Larson decided to help the bluebirds in his region by making and installing a small collection of basic, easy-to-produce, plain rectangular boxes on fence posts, trees, and other spots along travels routes he knew. Larson had already had a keen interest in birds, which only served to fuel his desire to help the bluebird thrive. The rest of his endeavors led to an expansion of his plan, and an historical interaction that deserved to be chronicled and remembered for ages.

Larson, now 97, is a tireless full-time protector and advocate of the bluebird. He admits to monitoring well over 300 assembled and installed nest boxes along what is known as miles and miles of “bluebird trails” that span five counties. In his summer travels to each box, he checks on the state of each box as well as checking each box for an actual nesting and eggs. The birds begin their mating and nesting rituals in April, and the summer months are relegated to the nurturing growth of baby birds essentially adding to the population.

The Bluebird Man Legacy

In the almost 40 years that Al Larson has been building, placing, replacing, and monitoring his boxes, he has become somewhat of a bluebird expert, all by personal observation and data collection. As a result of Larson’s heavily involved participation, it is said that the population of the bluebirds has noticeably increased. But as time is a consumer, it’s easily recognized that this project is one that will need to be carried forward into the next generation — and other generations to follow — if the appreciable gains made by Larson are to be built upon and extended. To that end, Larson personally conducts small “hands-on” classes to entice possible future torch bearers.

An award-winning short documentary called “The Bluebird Man” was filmed in 2014 and details Larson’s commitment. You can follow the film’s Facebook page here.


Devices Like Amazon Echo Give Parrots Music On Demand

blue-and-gold macawFor many, music is as necessary part of the day as the air is to breathe. It has many intended effects but is usually sought after for a calming effect. Much has been written on the quality of music for pets. But birds especially seem to take to it with a similar zest that humans do. And although the intents and purposes of such bird attraction to music can be reflected by birdsong for pairing and communication, it’s evident that birds do respond to music, perhaps appreciably. If you, as a bird owner, or as a backyard bird enthusiast, find that your birds are positively responding to music, then this article is definitely for you.

In a recent study, two parrots were given access to designed selectable jukeboxes allowing for the playback of songs. The purpose was to discover if a bird had a preference that they’d return to if given opportunities. For this study, the two parrots used touch screens to choose songs that they preferred. As a result, the birds chose their own favorites some 1,400 times between them within the span of a month. (After writing this information within a previous article, I received responses asking where such a jukebox might be available, hence the motivation to write this article.)

Some owners have Echo (and the cheaper Echo Dot), which are now called Alexa, from Amazon as a service device designed to do a variety of informational and enabled chores. Others have Google Home devices. Both Apple and Microsoft have AI assistants via software that have yet to be ported to a device like Alexa or Home, but they’re likely coming in the near future. Owners of birds with an ability to mimic human voices have found a few of these magnificent and intelligent birds developing a knack to use these devices. And stories are abounding. In fact, one parrot can call his owner, while others have ordered items from Amazon. One of the interesting uses of Alexa that some birds have accustomed to is the ability to playback music at their whim.

The nice thing about the newer and more versatile Alexa and Home devices are their ability to playback a requested track. If you already know your bird has a favorite song (or ten), then a set of simple training exercises could encourage your bird to “ask” Alexa or Home to playback their favorites by request. Of course, you’d have to subscribe to one of the music streaming services (Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, and Pandora Premium). But in time, your bird could possess the ability to musically entertain themselves by music for as long as they wish with what songs they seem to prefer. (For those concerned that their birds might order products, there are safeguards that can be accessed to prevent unauthorized purchases by your ornery loved one(s).)

With a little research and exploration, you should be able to find more than enough information and resources  to set up a parrot-friendly music service that — with some training — could provide your bird with enjoyable music preferences for as long as he or she remains interested in the ability to select music. As technology advances, it’s probable that some enterprising entrepreneur might even create a specific unit just for this purpose. Rocco, the UK African Grey Parrot has famously learned how to use Alexa to his advantages. He’s ordered food items, a kettle, and light bulbs, among other things. But Rocco has also used Alexa to playback some of his favorite songs, especially those by the Foo Fighters, and Kings of Leon. Rocco likes his tunes fast and rockin’!

For backyard birders who prefer to cultivate a sustainable habitat for birds, experimentation and well-placed weather-proof Bluetooth speakers can provide a stream of soothing selections at low-sound levels. Of course, you wouldn’t want to disrupt neighbors with blaring “We Will Rock You”-like tunes. But calming classical music played very low might be a good thing. Experimentation is a key to success in this endeavor.

Pepperberg’s Lab: When Parrots Go “Off-Script”


African grey parrot
Griffin put to the test in Dr. Pepperberg’s lab

 I’m often asked in interviews if my parrots really know what they are saying. My usual response is to provide solid scientific evidence that they couldn’t answer correctly otherwise. I might describe how I used to show Alex, and now can show Griffin, a particular object, and how each bird would correctly respond to several questions about it—for example, “Blue” to “What color?”, “Four-corner” to “What shape?”, “Wood” to “What matter?” and “Block” to “What toy?”

Or, for Alex, who also knew concepts of same/different, I would relate how I could show him, for example, two keys, one green and one red, and ask, “What’s different?” to which he’d reply, “Color”, then “What color bigger?” and he’d give the correct color, and finally I could ask “How many?” and he would state “Two.” Both birds had to be able to recognize the correspondence between each label and each of the separate questions in order to make each appropriate response, even though all their responses were to the same objects—the objects themselves obviously could not be a simple cue to say one particular thing. Sometimes, however, I wish I could have used some anecdotal evidence instead, because the anecdotes, although not very scientific, are a lot more fun to relate.

When a Parrot’s Use of Words is Very Clever, But….

One example occurred awhile back when Griffin did not want to climb [get on a human hand] for one of the students. This particular student is terrific; however, he happens to be working on a project that Griffin does not like very much. Thus, whenever the student asks Griffin to “Climb,” Griffin figures that he’s going to be made to work on this difficult task. The other day, the student asked several times, and each time Griffin put his head down, gave the student the famous Grey parrot slitty-eye’ look, and refused with his squeaky “Nuh.” The student persisted. Finally, Griffin walked to the other side of his cage, looked directly at a different student, put his foot up, and very, very clearly said “Come here!”

Then there was the time that Alex kept stating “Want grape,” but then also kept refusing the lovely green one that the student was offering. Finally, he gave her a look that could only be interpreted as frustrated, and belted out “urp-ul”…the utterance that, at the time, he was using for the label purple. She got the message, and I had to go to the grocery store the next morning for the appropriate item.

Another time, Alex stated “Want corn,” and this time the student wanted him to give the color. She kept asking “What color?” and he kept stating, over and over, “Want corn!” Finally, he looked her right in the eye and told her “I’m gonna go away”… and turned around and walked to the back top of his cage! That particular incident was caught on tape, as the BBC was filming the whole interaction.

Recently, Griffin very deliberately misunderstood a student. The student was working on a task in which Griffin had to respond with the color of either the bigger or smaller of two cups, depending on the question the student posed. The answer in this case was “Rose,” and Griffin mumbled it pretty badly. He, however, figured he was correct, and immediately said “Wanna nut”  to get his reward. The student wasn’t going to let him get away with a mumbled answer, so she said “You’re right, but talk clearly…say better.” To which Griffin replied “Want.a.nut!” with perfect diction! It was quite difficult not to reward this behavior with a laugh.

Clearly, the anecdotes represent single incidents, incidents that we can’t reproduce in order to get statistical significance—the gold standard of any scientific research. I can’t present these anecdotes in a scientific report or a conference presentation; my colleagues would—rightfully—argue that these instances could have happened by chance, given all the hours of interactions between humans and birds in my laboratory. I believe, however, that these anecdotes provide interesting insights into how the mind of a parrot may work. And, sometimes, anecdotes can inspire the design of our scientific studies, as when we decided to study addition after Alex gave some evidence that he was summing the number of clicks that we were using to train Griffin on numerical concepts (see Pepperberg, 2006).

Pepperberg, I.M. (2006a) Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) numerical abilities: addition and further experiments on a zero-like concept. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120, 1–11.

Rare Kakapo Chick’s Life-Saving Surgery

Science and medical technology have made vast improvements over the last decade. Human lives have been changed for the better as our understanding of how the body works increases and better tools are developed to help implement new and innovative discoveries. There is no doubt that advancing medical technology increases our own life spans immeasurably. As we come to greater knowledge, we’re also beginning to translate that better care to our animal kingdom. We’ve seen birds and other creatures benefit from new 3D printing technologies, as well as a number of procedural improvements. Recently, a medical first for an ailing parrot was performed by performing risky but necessary brain surgery. This procedure is currently the first ever performed on a bird.

The kakapo parrot is already classified as a critically endangered species, with a 2018 population assessment of only 149 birds. However, new survival technology employed by conservationists has resulted in 2019 being a banner year for the bird. It is said that 200 eggs were laid and of those, more than 50 chicks have already hatched as of March.  One of those chicks was found to have a life-threatening skull deformity when a lump was discovered on the skull. The team that closely monitors these birds in their wild habitats acquired the baby bird when it became old enough to separate it and flew it to a New Zealand hospital for a groundbreaking brain surgery.

Life-Saving Operation

Veterinarians from Massey University discovered that the lump was, in fact, the bird’s brain as it herniated against a thin layer of tissue as its only protection. Using known medical procedures, the veterinarian team from several institutions determined that the skull had not fused properly and immediate surgery was essential to the bird living beyond a young age. The team encountered a problem when they were unable to get the herniated tissue back into the skull. A mesh was then applied and fixed to the skull, which served the purpose of reducing the swell. After a time, the team sutured the bird’s skin over the mesh to complete the procedure. The operation was deemed a success and baby Espy was saved by an alert team and a highly skilled staff of veterinarians.

As with all new medical procedures, this surgery will become the precedent for new and future technologies and studies. This is a thrilling and wondrous moment for all birds that might require such brain surgeries even if the issue might be a different one than Espy’s event. As we moved through this still fairly young century, an enlightened and brave world of avian science can move toward providing much needed and urgent care for our birds that might require them. Espy’s successful surgery might even open doors for other animals in the event a potentially life-threatening event might arise. With necessary support and encouragement, every living thing has an equal chance at a new lease on life.

We have every hope and expectation that Espy will grow to be a full adult and produce generations of new kakapo parrots. If the kakapo population expands further, some thanks to the brave teams that healed Espy will be in order.

You can read the Massey University press statement and catch a glimpse of Espy here.

Birds & Other Pets: Why You Need To Be On Guard

dog portraitWord went out from a bird club about a tragic case of dog vs. bird. A 30-year-old, double yellow-headed Amazon had played regularly with the family dog, without incident. The bird was allowed to roam the floors freely and walked up to the dog’s food dish. The bird, being a bird, nipped the dog on the nose. The dog, being a dog, instinctively responded by grabbing the bird by the wing and ripping it off in front of the owner. The bird was rushed to the vet, but had to be euthanized. Now the owner will have to live with the horror of watching her beloved bird being killed by her dog. She said they had always played together fine without incident before.

Avian veterinarian Dr. Clare Fahy reported a similar incident with a cockatiel that was rushed to them after having its wing torn off by a dog. Amazingly that bird survived, albeit wingless, with the chest cavity sewn shut. A letter posted to George Sommers’ column, “From the parrot’s beak” tells of how they lost their “dear sweet” white-capped Pionus. A friend was watching their birds while they were away. The friend has dogs and was asked not to have the birds out of their cages when the dogs were in the house. The friend thought she could just run through the kitchen to upstairs with her shepherd mix. The Pionus was startled and took flight. The dog snatched the bird out of the air and killed her instantly.

Avian veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Lamb tells the story of a yellow-naped Amazon that lived in a home with four other birds and three rescue dogs of various breeds. The dogs normally did not have contact with the birds, but one night the owner let the birds out to play on their cages. The phone rang, and she left the birds “for just a second.” One dog snuck into the room and grabbed the Amazon right off of the cage.  The owner rushed him to the vet, but he had died by the time they got there. There was a huge hole punctured in his stomach. 

Dr. Lamb reports another case of an African grey parrot who lived with a chow chow breed of dog. The chow chow was always trying to get to the bird, and one year earlier had grabbed the bird through the cage and punctured the bird’s eye, blinding it in that eye. This time, the bird was walking around the floor and got grabbed by the dog again. The bird suffered multiple puncture wounds on the face and into the sinus cavities. The beak had a severe, lengthwise fracture down the center. The bird had to have a prosthesis placed on the beak and stayed in the hospital in intensive care for five days on numerous medications and oxygen support. The bird did survive and went home, but the recovery time was greater than two months. No word on whether the owner still allows the dog to be around the bird.

Dr. Lamb described a third case of an Eclectus that had had numerous encounters with a medium-sized dog. They “played” together, but it had escalated numerous times, causing puncture wounds, beak fractures, internal bleeding, and nerve damage. Dr. Lamb has advised the owners time and time again not to let them “play.” She said that she fears that one day the bird is going to get killed

Dangers Of Complacency

Maybe you’re sitting there reading this and horrified. Maybe you’re telling yourself that those cases are exceptions, and that your dog/cat would never harm your bird. They’ve “grown up” together. Your dog/cat is very docile and wouldn’t hurt a flea. Your bird has a beak and it can defend itself. Your bird is fully flighted and can always fly away. Your dog/cat is afraid of your bird. The list of why it’s OK for your dog/cat (or other animal) to play with your bird goes on and on. Except it’s not OK.  It’s never OK.

The Internet abounds with videos of birds playing with dogs and cats. We’ve all seen them. We’ve probably thought how adorable they looked together, all the while telling ourselves that it was dangerous. But how dangerous is it? The stories above are not exceptions to a rule. They are the rule. Dogs and cats (and some other family pets, especially ferrets) are predators. They may be domesticated, but their predatory instinct is always there, either overtly or lurking just below the surface. If an otherwise friendly dog or cat is annoyed by a bird, such as by a nip on the nose (and what bird doesn’t occasionally nip?), it might lash out. It’s not going to stop and think, “Oh yeah, this is my buddy. I’d better not hurt him.”

In dog/cat vs. bird, the bird usually loses. Yes, the bird has a beak, but it’s not like they’ve set out to have a fight with their “weapons” at the ready. Once the dog or cat has struck, it can be game over for the bird. Even friendly dogs and cats can injure birds by overexuberant play or even stepping on a bird, so injury doesn’t just result from hostile behavior.

Also keep in mind that something as simple as a scratch from a dog or especially a cat can be fatal to a bird. Dog and cat bites, licks, and scratches can transmit a deadly organism called Pasteurella multocida. Not just to birds, but to you too! When outdoor cats “play” with a bird (or other animal) outside and the animal escapes, it frequently dies of this infection. So even if your docile cat just licks your bird, it can have deadly consequences.

But, you’re thinking, my dog/cat has never harmed my bird in all the years they’ve been together. That’s what the owner of the Amazon was saying too. Just because something has never happened before is no guarantee that it will never happen in the future. You’ve cooked with Teflon all these years and your bird is still alive (until Aunt Mabel calls you and you lose all track of time as the pan slowly burns on the stove, killing your birds). That stock has risen every year since you’ve owned it (until the CFO gets caught embezzling funds and the stock crashes).  You don’t need to put ID tags on your dog because she’s never run out of the house before (until you open the door for the mail carrier and a squirrel runs by outside). 

It’s called an accident. It’s unpredictable. You never meant for it to happen. Supervising your animals while they’re out isn’t good enough.  The woman whose Amazon got its wing ripped off was in the room when it happened. Unless you can move faster than the speed of light, you won’t be able to stop it from happening. The only way to keep your bird from being injured or worse by your other family pets is to make sure they’re never out together and that the other animals can’t access the cages. A friend of mine with an outdoor aviary lost his cockatiel when a neighbor’s cat pulled the bird’s leg through the bars and ripped it off. The bird had to be euthanized as it slowly bled out.

Some people advocate “training” the dog/cat to be with the bird. It’s fine to let the dog/cat know that there are birds in the house and that they shouldn’t touch them. But that’s not the same thing as letting them play together. That is never acceptable. And size doesn’t matter. Ferrets are small, but deadly to birds.  

With proper precautions, extended families of humans, dogs, cats, birds, and other animals can all live happily together. Remember that the lives of these precious little creatures are in your hands. Let’s be safe out there!

Give Your Bird Some “Gym Time”

quaker parakeet
Quaker Parakeet by Yolanda, Saskatoon, Canada

Life with companion parrots is a unique pet parent experience. While most people understand how to “go the extra mile” when caring for a dog or cat, we are often mystified on how to truly make our homes a sanctuary for our parrots. Certainly, a spacious cage with plenty of toys and nutritious food is a start; but, where do we go from there? Our parrots want to have fun, stretch their wings, and constantly be entertained – and you can provide it all with a parrot play gym.

A typical day for a wild parrot consists of flying for miles, vocalizing for hours, playing with their flock, and eating lots of tasty food. While we can’t supply all of the wonders of their natural habitat, having a complex indoor environment for your parrots keeps their clever brains busy so they can burn off their extra energy safely.

Providing a play gym for your parrot enables you to have a defined space where your parrot can explore, play with toys, or just stretch their wings and exercise without being confined to their cage. Using a play gym daily gives your bird a little independence and may have other health benefits, like reducing stress from boredom or burning extra calories to reduce the risk of obesity.

Gym Styles

Parrot play gyms come in many shapes and sizes to suit all types of parrots, and are commonly made from high-quality wood, like Java, a durable plastic, or bird-safe metal.  These materials are made into tabletop, free-standing, or hanging gyms; to choose the best stand for your parrot, you’ll also want to consider her activity level, size, and age. All gyms can be customized with the addition of your bird’s favorite types of toys.

A good place to start when researching play gym options is to consider the amount of space you’d like to dedicate to your parrot’s play area. For a smaller space, or maximum portability, a tabletop gym or branch stand is a great option that enables you bring your parrot to any room in the house or put the gym away when not in use. Tabletop gyms equipped with ladders, swings, and other types of exercise toys are common for small parrots like parakeets or cockatiels, while stands for larger birds typically have a thick wooden branch with a hook to add a toy of your choice, and a cup for treats or water.

For a more permanent and stationary option, hanging play gyms are whimsical, fun, and can be placed just about anywhere with the right equipment. For a particularly adventurous bird, you may consider both a free-standing java branch stand below a hanging gym for a floor-to-ceiling parrot exploration experience. Hanging gyms are particularly great for fully flighted parrots, and those that consider climbing to be an extreme sport. Make sure that any hanging gyms are appropriately anchored in the ceiling to reduce the risk of damage or collapse, especially for heavier parrots like a macaw or cockatoo! For an option that is still mobile, yet not quite raising the roof, free-standing parrot gyms come in many different styles that may consist of a single java branch, or an array of metal ladders, swings, and bridges. Any parrot play gym is sure to please when equipped with plenty of appropriate toys to shred, chunk, forage, and destroy!

Go Slow

Young and active birds are best kept busy with variety and daily excitement, while older and shyer birds tend to rely on predictability; take your bird’s personality into consideration when changing their environment to make sure they adjust appropriately and aren’t afraid of their new surroundings. Not all parrots will accept their new play gym on Day 1 – and that’s ok! Introduce slowly with plenty of praise and rewards at a pace that makes sense for your particular bird.

In addition to a smooth introductory period, you’ll also want to make sure your parrot stays safe while using their new play gym. When deciding where to place the new gym, you’ll want to make sure that your parrot cannot easily access items that you don’t want chewed; this may include electrical wires, outlets, painted wood, curtains, wooden molding, ceiling tiles, ceiling fans, or any number of possibilities. Speaking of ceiling fans, make sure all are turned off and stay off while your bird is out of their cage.

If you have a particularly busy household, it may be a good idea to lock the front door if the play gym is within reach – it’s better safe than sorry! It’s also important to always be present while your parrot is free to explore their gym. Some parrots, despite having two wings, enjoy climbing down off their gyms to take a walk. You can train your bird to stay put by repeatedly placing them back on the stand and rewarding them with a treat after a few seconds of them staying put! You’ll also want to monitor the condition of toys and gym daily – what was once a smooth piece of wood can quickly become a jagged hazard at the mercy of an overactive parrot beak.

Also, consider the other pets that may share your home and how they will react to the new furniture. Cats, in particular, enjoy jumping up onto high-rising places. It is ok to allow other pets to become familiar with the play gym, however it is not recommended to do this while your bird is using the gym. Rather, keep your parrot safely in their cage while other pets take a good sniff. Living with parrots, we know they truly enjoy being mischievous and getting themselves into sticky situations. Make sure your parrot is safe by moving unsafe items out of reach or choosing a different location for the play gym.

Living with parrots is a wild ride, and one that we enjoy every day! Making sure to keep our parrots busy is so important, and made much easier by having one or more parrot play gyms at your disposal. With their endless energy, your parrots are bound to appreciate every day as they stretch their wings, shred a toy, or just hang out just a closer to you thanks to their play gym.



Behold a Rare Albino Penguin!

In a world where we all like to stand out noticeably, a newly born penguin in a zoo environment unintentionally did just that. In Poland’s Gdańsk Zoo, located in the Oliwa forest district of Northern Poland, a pair of African penguins carrying the recessive gene mutation of albinism contributed to the hatching of what is considered to be the only albino penguin chick in current captivity. Previously, an albino penguin was hatched in UK’s Bristol Zoo back in 2002. Named Snowdrop for the obvious reasons, the bird lived for only two years before succumbing to an unfortunate sudden and mysterious death.

African penguins are often called “jackass” penguins due to the loud braying sound they produce, or, more professionally, the Black-footed penguin. These penguins are found in the wild in the southern coastal regions of Africa particularly on several islands. The bird weighs in between five and eight pounds, and stand approximately two feet tall. They are naturally black and white, with predominate black coloring on their back, and white with black stripes and spots on their chest and belly areas. The African penguin is a flightless bird. Also unfortunate is the fact that the African penguin is listed as an endangered species. With approximately 40,000 birds left due to habitat pollution and increasing depletion of food sources, the scarcity of the birds is of great concern.

Albinism is a rare genetic disorder in many species that fails to produce the requisite melanin required for dark pigmentation in animals (and in humans) resulting in white feathers, white skin, or white fur, dependent upon the afflicted. In addition, pink-colored eyes are often a part of the genetic results for the disorder.

Rare Chick

The Gdańsk Zoo recently reported that on December 12 of 2018, a routine check revealed the unique albino chick. Thus far, it is unknown whether the new five-month old arrival is male or female. Of course, the excitement is rampant at the zoo. The young bird is currently housed with its parents, and four other birds, who, thus far, consider the chick a part of the crew. In the wild, such a bird is typically rejected and falls prey to neglect and attack.

The albino chick is being carefully monitored to help it survive beyond the short time of life of Bristol Zoo’s famous albino penguin, Snowdrop. Professionals are watching carefully for various skin diseases and malfunctions typically found in albino creatures. The proud and excited Director of the Zoo has assured the public the new baby chick is in excellent health, eats well, and has doting parents as well as a wealth of fond caregivers. With that, it is hoped that this as yet unnamed baby bird will grow to be a healthy and adored adult. It is also hoped that the bird will be accepted by flock of African penguins currently within the zoo environment.

You can follow the developments of this unique albino penguin chick by checking out the Gdańsk Zoo Facebook page (here).

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