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Parrot Intelligence

Knowledge of Parrot Intelligence May Benefit Owners and Birds

parrot Associate Professor Irene Pepperberg, noted expert, author and speaker on parrot intelligence, recently submitted research findings of a project funded by the Pet Care Trust. The project studied the African Grey parrot in an effort to better understand their behavioral needs and provide insights on how "to keep them from getting bored, which results in the birds screaming and chewing their feathers." Dr. Pepperberg's comments provide the basis for practical recommendations for parrot owners. Her studies with three African Grey parrots are ongoing at the Media Lab at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dr. Pepperberg's concern, like many hobbyists, breeders and pet dealers, is the reality that "many owners give their parrots a few toys and leave them alone for eight or nine hours a day. But like children, they (parrots) need interaction." Like many birds, parrots are social creatures that have evolved and live in flocks in the wild. Also, like most captive animals, parrots are happier and less neurotic if they have positive stimulation and interaction during the day.

The research funded by the Pet Care Trust focused on the cognitive and communicative abilities of African Grey parrots. The research project studied psittacine communication and intelligence. Communication requires learning both on how to produce and to use a "code". Birds that learn the code with humans can be studied to find what conditions facilitate the extent of their learning. In this study, graduate and undergraduate students used parrot-human communication to examine how birds a) learn to comprehend questions, numerical concepts, concepts of over/under, "middle", relations between objects and spoken and written words, and, b) recognize pictures and slides. The goal of this study was to disseminate the information to psittacine bird owners and hobbyists to help them understand and help their birds deal with stresses associated with keeping birds in captivity. Dr. Pepperberg stresses that "potential pet owners must be taught that purchase of a parrot is akin to the addition of a child of 3-5 years of age to their household." "My work has shown that birds are as accurate (as many other animals) on many tasks used to evaluate intelligent behavior. Additional knowledge of parrot intelligence can be used to emphasize this point and improve the situation of pet birds."

The results of this study:
Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) learn referential English labels (labels that directly refer to specific objects, shapes, colors, concepts) when they view and interact with two humans who model vocal labeling and who demonstrate the referentiality (meaning) and functionality (use) of a label. Such labels were learned from multiple live tutors, but not a single trainer. Presence of a conspecific (another Grey parrot) enhanced learning compared with single human trainer sessions but did not affect learning in 2-human sessions. Significant findings from the research project:

  1. Griffin (the subject parrot) did not acquire labels in sessions where one human labeled objects and interacted with the bird. While the study was performed with one parrot, similar results and may or may not be successful with other birds. Dr. Pepperberg has yet to determine if her results can be extended to other parrot species, but the similarity in lifestyle across parrot species (research on parrots that live in large flocks appear to learn from each other) suggest that her findings can be applied to many species of parrots commonly owned by hobbyists.

    The practical application:
    if hobbyists want their birds to engage in meaningful communication, they need to use two trainers. Such findings should encourage pet owners to work together in pairs, neighboring owners, or people within parrot clubs. Additional interaction among birds and humans will increase the amount of time in which birds have human attention.

  2. Griffin's failures, viewed with this and other Grey parrots' inability to learn from audiotapes and videos, suggest that owners must not be disappointed if their parrots fail to learn labels and phrases that they repeat to the bird, or fail to learn from a TV or a radio that is left on for the bird in the absence of the owner. Although some parrots may be entertained by TV or radio, our research shows that birds may simply 'tune out' such input that is not interactive. Just like parents who should not expect their children to learn language only by watching television, bird owners cannot rely on such input.

    The practical application:
    encourage people to spend more quality time with their birds. Pepperberg's more recent research (see below) is attempting to develop alternatives to non-interactive TV and radio.

  3. The current experiments in conjunction with earlier studies show that two live models (one human, one parrot) who demonstrate the meaning and use of labels, and who interact, are necessary, but not sufficient for acquiring meaningful labels. Although, Grey parrots may learn from one another, owners should not be disappointed if such learning does not occur, and should not buy a second bird solely for the purpose of keeping their first bird company. Pepperberg's research shows that two birds might compete for the attention of their owner, rather than entertain each other.

    The practical application:
    to warn people that buying a second pet bird as a companion to their first pet bird will not necessarily solve the problem of boredom, of screaming, of feather plucking, etc. The owner may find himself/herself with two such bored, disturbed birds. These findings do not mean people should not own multiple parrots, only that each bird needs sufficient attention. That is, someone who spends long hours away from home should carefully evaluate their reasons for purchasing multiple birds. Although current toys and equipment are better than an empty cage, nothing seems to be as important for companion birds as having human companions. Remember, most companion birds are currently hand-raised and thus imprinted on humans; they see humans as their parents, mates, friends, and do not necessarily relate to other birds.

  4. Grey parrots require two live human trainers modeling interactions that exhibit full reference (meaning), functionality (appropriate use), and social exchanges to acquire meaningful use of English labels. As noted above, people who wish to own parrots need to understand that they must provide adequate social interaction for their birds; they should seriously consider connecting with other owners if they wish to train meaningful use of vocalizations.
In summation:
  1. Parrots are intelligent and need social interaction-no one would recommend putting a four-year old human in a playpen with one or two toys for 8 hrs/day; these birds are equally intelligent and in need of interaction.
  2. Parrots need to be trained by two humans or at least observe two humans interacting if they are to learn to use English speech in a completely meaningful way. Although such communication is not the only way that owners and birds can interact, a bird that can express its particular needs and get those needs met is a bird that is less frustrated, less likely to engage in temper tantrums or other unacceptable behavior. Furthermore, owners who engage in speech training are providing their birds quality interaction, which also should reduce negative behavior.
  3. Additional parrots may not fulfill the need for social interaction, and owners must carefully evaluate their reasons for purchasing additional companion birds.
  4. Exposure to TV and radio may not fulfill a parrot's social needs; owners must accept that they have an obligation to their birds to provide interaction.
  5. Pet owners must not become frustrated if their parrot fails to learn to speak from TV, video or audiotapes, or from a single trainer. Owners must learn to accept a bird whether or not it learns to speak meaningfully.

More recently, a new project conceived by Pepperberg and members of the Media Lab addresses alternative ways to entertain birds. One graduate student suggested the idea of teaching the birds to surf the Web. The first thing learned was that parrots do not seem to interact with images on cathode-ray-tube screens (commonly used with personal computers). The Media Lab provided a flat-panel, liquid-crystal monitor and customized a mouse made of a flat piece of plastic with a hole in it to allow the parrot to insert its beak. Now, with this "parrot-friendly" equipment, the bird has greater interest and often uses the 'mouse' to provide video and audio entertainment. Pepperberg is currently trying to develop computer equipment that could allow owners and birds to interact at a distance. Who knows, perhaps one day parrots could play interactive games, enter chat rooms with other parrots and communicate with their owners through their personal computer? This Media Lab research is just in its early stages and no data has yet been published. (Note: this computer study is not funded by the Pet Care Trust.)

Reprinted with permission Copyright 2000 Pet Care Trust