Other Animals
African grey parrot; African grey, grey parrot
African grey Griffin isn’t one to play with toys, but appears to like making his own towel-burrito-style toy. Image courtesy Dr. Irene Pepperberg

As I’ve mentioned several times before, Griffin just isn’t “into” playing with standard parrot toys. He has ignored all the fancy ones we have offered, avoiding everything we’ve tried. [Athena, in contrast, loves playing with her toys—she especially enjoys chewing on those made of softwood, parrot-safe pine cones, and dried corn.]

When on or in his cage, the only objects Griffin likes are ones we make out of construction paper—we roll up several sheets, tie them with a piece of parrot-safe rawhide, and then feather the ends. He spends a decent amount of time chewing these every day. If he is on a table, however, he’ll play with a spoon or a small plastic measuring cup—but not when he’s on his cage. He has also ignored foraging toys in his cage but, again, when on a table or in a testing situation, will do something like pop a plastic lid from a cup to get food—even when the same food is available for free (Smith et al., 2021)—that is, he engages in contrafreeloading.

We understand the contrafreeloading behavior—Griffin gets to play with something fun and get a treat, as opposed to just getting the treat. And although we don’t quite understand why he ignores standard parrot toys, we accept his preferences. Moreover, given that he’s usually involved in a number of different cognitive studies at any one time, we aren’t at all concerned about his being bored. Nevertheless, we were extremely surprised to see that he has begun to make his own foraging toy! The background is as follows….

Griffin the Toy Maker

food wrapped in a paper towel
A close-up of African grey Griffin’s self-styled “food burrito” foraging toy. Image courtesy of Dr. Irene Pepperberg

Recently, Griffin’s arthritis has become bad enough that he has had trouble perching on his food bowls, so we have begun to put his cooked grains on a clean paper towel in a corner on top of his cage instead. He happily eats that way, and we figured that we had solved the problem. One day we noted that he was spending an inordinate amount of time in that corner, and wondered why. When we investigated, we saw that he had actually folded the towel around his food to make a pretty fancy kind of burrito-looking object! (See figures below—and this one isn’t even his best.) He subsequently spent a good part of the rest of the afternoon chewing a big hole in it and then eating the rest of his lunch.

As it turned out, his behavior wasn’t a one-off occurrence. He now does this burrito-building on a daily basis. Maybe it is just another chance to play with something made of paper (and now infused with the flavors of his food)? The only downside is that he has become rather protective of his creation. Consequently, it isn’t all that easy now for the research assistants to clear away the lunch “burrito” so that they can replace it with his dinner grains. We figure that once he begins to realize the pattern—that he gets fresh food and the chance to make a second toy at dinner time—he will become more accommodating.

I’m sure Griffin is not the only parrot to engage in such behavior—but for a bird who has shown so little interest in toys over the course of his lifetime, I have to say that the moral of the story is that these parrots never cease to surprise us!


Smith, G.E., Greene, D., Hartsfield, L.A., & Pepperberg, I.M. (2021). Initial evidence for contrafreeloading in Grey parrots via the opportunity for playful foraging. J. Comp. Psychol. 135(4):516-533.

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