I’ve written on this topic several times already, but it is one that consistently tends to surprise people who are rarely around parrots; moreover, parrot owners seem to enjoy hearing about these anecdotes from my lab. And, yes, these are anecdotes, because we can’t study these types of behaviors that are exhibited by the birds in a scientific manner. For science, one needs to observe or reproduce the behavior numerous times to see whether it happened just “by chance” (i.e., was a fluke) or is something that is a stable part of the repertoire.
Anecdotes are definitely in the “by chance” category. Nevertheless, these incidents help us understand something about parrot intelligence, and sometimes, as I’ve noted before, can even lead to actual experiments. None of the following have led us to design any new studies, but they are of interest, even if only to c
Typical Day in the Lab
A typical day starts out with our feeding the parrots part of their breakfast in the kitchen of the apartment that we are currently using as our lab. Athena and Griffin sit on identical small wooden T-stands that are about a foot apart (although she often climbs down, as you can see in the accompanying photo), and our research assistants (RAs) give them, among other foods, spoonsful of warm yam, the beans from cooked green beans, and sliced up steamed Brussels sprouts and broccoli (all organic!). Last month, Athena didn’t like something about one of her sprouts, and threw it…whether she was actually aiming at Griffin wasn’t clear, but she bonked him. He immediately looked at the RA and said, “WANNA GO BACK!”…his phrase when he wants to return to his cage. Even though he hadn’t finished eating, clearly he was through for that morning!
A few days ago, Griffin was beaking through the dry food in the bowl attached to the top of his cage when he looked toward me and, very deliberately, said, “GREEN.” Unlike Alex, he doesn’t normally practice his labels when on top of his cage, so I looked back at him, quizzically. He repeated “GREEN!” quite emphatically. I went to look at his bowl…it was empty of the green pasta, his favorite in his mix of tricolor items. We refilled his bowl, and he happily crunched away.
The Greys Know What’s Going On
Both birds also have a much greater understanding of English speech than can be determined by their production, and it has become very clear that they understand context. Recently, we’ve been doing an experiment that neither of them likes very much. I won’t go into detail at the moment, but it requires them to sit in front of some stimuli and allow us to film their reactions. They don’t get any immediate reward (just a small piece of nut when the time period is over). So, whenever the RA involved in that study is present, neither of them will willingly climb on our hands to leave their cages, because they have figured out that such an action would mean working on this experiment.
However, they make two exceptions; f we tell them it is “cracker time” (when they get to go back into the kitchen and get some lovely organic seeded cracker) or if we ask whether they want to “supervise meal time” (when they go back to the kitchen and watch the RA microwave their lunch or dinner grains)—then both of them climb without any hassle whatsoever, even for the RA involved in that disagreeable study.
They’ve clearly made associations with those phrases and activities they enjoy. [Note: Associations are just that…we can’t claim they know the meaning of all the words in those phrases.] But it isn’t just the time of day, because we’ve mixed up “cracker time” a bit, and sometimes try to get them to climb when it is mealtime without specifically asking them about “supervising.” They also really like their studies on “exclusion” (figuring out where a reward is hidden after being given information about where it can’t possibly be), probably because they get rather large nut rewards—the trials are difficult and require quite a bit of deduction, so they get a bigger nut piece than usual. Thus, even though the task is challenging, as soon as they see us setting up for that study, the clamber to the edge of their cages, waiting to be picked up…again, in this case, they’ll even climb for the RA associated with the study they don’t like.
None of these anecdotes are, individually, all that exciting, but when you add these to the other ones I’ve reported…well, you start to appreciate how much these birds can communicate with us, even with a rather limited vocabulary!