More Birds with Brains


"That Damn Bird!"

The parrot holds its food for prim consumption as daintily as any debutante, [with] a predilection for pot roast,
hashed-brown potatoes, duck skin, butter, hoisin sauce, sesame seed oil, bananas and human thumb.

- Alexander Theroux

A Talk with Irene Pepperberg


Alex is cute!

One of my students was cleaning up the laboratory; we recycle whatever we can, so she was collecting all the empty bottles, throwing them in a bin, separating out the caps and putting them on the counter where Griffin, an African grey parrot, was sitting.  She called me over and said, "You told me that parrots are destructive foragers and that they don't really put things together, so come here and take a look."  There was Griffin, taking smaller caps and putting them into bigger caps, then picking up the pairs and throwing them off the side of the counter.  This incident occurred at about the same time that he was saying things like "want walnut," "green grape," and other 2-word combinations of that nature.

We took a deep breath and said, "Okay, a nice anecdote but we must look at the behaviour scientifically."  We started examining 3-level combinations.  We began by giving Griffin lots of different bottle caps, jar lids and things that he could put together, and also training him on a very small number of 3-label combinations - 2-corner wood, 2-corner paper, 5-corner wood, 5-corner paper - to give him the idea of combining labels.  We started the experiment around June, and months went by and he wasn't putting together more than 2 bottle caps or lids and wasn't saying any 3-label combinations.  But we kept working.  Then in February, within the space of about 10 days, he started making 3-object combinations and putting 3 labels together.

It was as though something in his brain had had to mature or some wiring had to develop.  Interestingly, over the course of the experiment, the percentage of 3-label combinations and the percentage of 3-item combinations were the same: about 6 - 10%.  He wasn't very proficient at any of the triple combinations but he was forming them.  He continued primarily to utter 2-label combinations and construct 2-object combinations; he succeeded on something like 200 of 210 two-object attempts, performing easily and correctly.  The fascinating point was that of all of his vocal 3-label combinations, he used only one on which he had been trained.  The rest of his 3-label utterances were ones he put together himself, like "want green nut" or "wanna go chair."  He used 14 representative 3-label combinations and repeated each of those many times.

What the data suggest to me is that if one starts with a brain of a certain complexity and gives it enough social and ecological support, that brain will develop at least the building blocks of a complex communication system.  Why is this material important as well as fascinating?  Because it suggests that to understand the evolutionary bases for cognition, we must also examine cognition in creatures quite removed from humans.  Other forms of cognition exist that are as interesting, as important, and that might have similar evolutionary bases.

Parrots live in an environment that both matches and differs from that of apes.  With respect to similarities, birds have to deal with a complex ecology.  Grey parrots, for example, forage up to 60 kilometers a day.  They are at least as long-lived as apes, so they must keep track of changes in the rain forest and the savanne over the course of 30 to 60 years - both seasonal changes and long-term environmental changes.  Greys live in large flocks.  They separate out into pairs during breeding seasons.  We don't know much about their social strata, but they definitely defend their nest areas from other pairs.

When I first wanted to begin this research, I submitted a grant proposal to NIH, and the panel came back with reviews essentially asking me what I was smoking, because nobody thought birds could do anything remotely like what I was proposing.  So I worked with undergraduate volunteers, with my friends' high-school children, and showed that parrots could referentially label objects.  I resubmitted the grant to NSF.  I got a very small amount of funding.  When it came up for renewal, the reviewers said, "that's fine, but do parrots understand categorisation?"  My students and I then demonstrated that Alex could label an object by its colour, its shape, and its material; we showed an understanding of hierarchical categories.  Nobody thought birds could do that.  Then my critics said, "But parrots don't have concepts of 'same' and 'different' the way chimps do."  So we made Alex do this task "backwards and in heels": the chimps had only to designate whether 2 objects were the same or different; Alex had to look at 2 items and tell you the label of the category that was the same or different, that is, with respect to colour, shape, or material.  We'd give him two wooden squares of different colours, and ask "What's different?", or a yellow paper triangle and a blue wooden one and ask "What's same?"

Then we started looking at concepts of absence, because people said that animals don't have such a concept.  I argued that of course they have to respond to absence of information in the wild: they understand that "if my neighbour bird is not singing, it is probably gone and I can invade its territory."  So we demonstrated that Alex could respond "none" if nothing was same or different about two items.

The same issues arose with concepts of number.  Many scientists felt that animals don't have a number sense because they don't understand abstract representations and relational concepts.  We therefore did a series of studies on number, showing that Alex could, for example, look at a tray of intermingled red and blue balls and blocks and tell us how many blue blocks were on the tray (that is, ignore the red and blue balls and the red blocks, and focus on one subset of items); a 4-year-old child has problems with such a task.  Every time that people said that parrots can't do something, I've been able to show that they have some ability with respect to the concept in question, and in some cases I've been able to show more complex understanding than other researchers have been able to show in the primates.

My research is important for the pet industry.  What I've tried to explain to parrot owners is that what they have in a cage in their living room is a creature with the sentience of a 4- to 6-year-old child.  I try to convince them that you can't just lock it in a cage for 8 hours a day without any kind of interaction.  I don't mean just interpersonal interaction, or having other birds around; parrots have to be intellectually challenged.  In the wild they are constantly challenged - challenged to find food, challenged to avoid predators, and challenged by the intra-flock interactions.  In contrast, what does a pet do?  The bird sits alone in a cage all day, with ample food and water in nice accessible cups, and vegetates.  Some birds in such situations pluck their feathers; they scream, they bite - they act in ways similar to those of a 4-year-old having a temper tantrum because it had been left it alone in a playpen for 8 hours with maybe one toy and some snacks.  I've tried to help these people understand what they are getting themselves into, and hopefully have convinced them to enrich the lives of these birds as much as possible.

One of the other things to remember when you have a pet parrot is that this bird is a flock creature.  One parrot in the wild is a dead parrot - it can't forage and look for predators at the same time.  So when you have one bird in your house, or even two birds of separate species, you have a bird that is seeking companions as well as stimulation.

One of the things we tried to do was to devise different types of computer-based enrichment programs for birds.  We created something called "InterPet Explorer," which was a modified web browser.  The bird had 4 choices of input: it could see video, listen to music, see pictures, or play a game.  Within each of those categories were 4 choices.  Under the music selection, for example, the bird could choose clips of rock, country, classical or jazz.  Alex would play with this system for about an hour in the morning before we came into the lab.  At first he interacted with it a lot, then seemed to lose interest; the students were concerned that the system was a failure.  I asked them, "How often are you changing content?"  They then reorganised the system to use different channels of Internet radio so that Alex had something different whenever he clicked a choice, and his interest shot back up.

Ben Resner and Bruce Blumberg created "Rover@Home," in which you could play with your dog over the Internet while you were at work.  These are examples of the kinds of interactive systems we were trying to develop, so you could sit at your desk during your coffee break and use cameras and computers to connect with your animal.  I hoped it would be the start of a serious research program, not just for pets, but also to enrich the lives of various species in zoos and even research subjects in animal care facilities.  For a lot of reasons, it didn't happen.  The idea is still out there, though, and I hope somebody will continue it one day.

There are many studies my students and I still want to do with our parrots.  For example, we want to look at spatial concepts.  For humans, "over" and "under" are pretty standard concepts.  Parrots, in contrast, are more 3-dimensional.  As they fly, within a second what is over them is under and vice versa.  Could a parrot understand the concept of over and under separate from the relationship to its own body?  For example, if it learned to tell you that the key is above the cork with respect to the midline of its head, what would happen if you then moved both objects above its head?  Could it still understand "over" and "under" for two items when they aren't correlated to its own body as the frame of reference?  We also want to pursue numbers further.  At present, Alex can identify quantities up to 6, but is it real counting?  Would he succeed on a task in which you gave him two lines of objects - with the same numbers of items - but then crunch one together, to make it shorter?  If you ask children, they come to understand that the numbers are the same in the two lines, but earlier in development they confuse length with number.  How will parrots respond?

We will do more studies with recursion.  A paper in Science published in October 2002 stated only humans produce recursive phrases - that recursion is thus what separates human language from animal communication systems.  But parrots, dolphins and sea lions respond to recursive sentences.  Dolphins and sea lions differentially respond to statements such as "Touch the surfboard that is grey and to the left" versus "Swim over the Frisbee that is black and to your right."  Alex responds to questions such as "What object is green and 3-corner?" versus "What colour is wood and 4-corner?" or "What shape is paper and purple?"

Some scientists say that animals' responses involve comprehension rather than production, and therefore don't count.  But comprehension is often used as evidence of concept, particularly in young children who aren't yet verbal.  Rather than argue, we are trying to train Alex to produce long phrases in response to questions like "Where's the key?" or "Where's the nut?" - to have him answer us "It's in the blue cup that's on the tray," or "It's in the yellow box on the chair."  Those are tasks on which we are eager to begin.  Such research touches on consciousness and what defines human language; how does one reconcile arguments for the uniqueness of humans with evidence for lower-level building blocks of these phenomena in other creatures?

I never claim that Alex has full-blown language; I never would.  I'm not going to be able to put Alex on a stand and have you interview him the way you interview me.  But Alex has basic building blocks that are language-like behaviours - and also elements of phenomena like consciousness and awareness.  Is Alex conscious?  Personally, I believe so.  Can I prove it?  No.  Does he have perceptual awareness?  That I can prove.

We hide things in various ways under cups; Alex and Griffin show that they know that the objects are still there, meaning that they understand that "out of sight" does not mean the object ceases to exist.  We play the equivalent of shell games with our birds (like games at carnivals, where you hide an object under one of 3 cups and then switch the cups around) and both birds still find the hidden item.  We did one study in which the procedure requires the experimenter to deceive the subject.  We made believe that we were putting the object under one cup but sneaked it under another other or replaced it with a less desirable item.  Alex went over to where he expected the item to be, picked up the cup, and found that the nut was not there; he started banging his beak on the table and throwing the cups around.  Such behaviour shows that Alex knew the object was supposed to be there and that it wasn't.  He gave very clear evidence that he perceived something, and that his awareness and expectations were violated.  Griffin responded the same way.

There are some things that the birds do that, colloquially speaking, "just blow us away."  We were training Alex to sound out phonemes, not because we wanted him to read as humans do, but we wanted to see if he understood that his labels are made up of sounds that can be combined in different ways to make new words.  He now babbles, producing strings like "green, cheen, bean, keen", so we have evidence, but we needed more solid data.

Thus we tried to get him to sound out refrigerator letters, the same way one would train children on phonics.  We were doing demos at the Media Lab for our corporate sponsors; we had a very small amount of time scheduled and the visitors wanted to see Alex work.  So we put a number of differently coloured letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and asked, "Alex, what sound is blue?"  He answered, "Ssss."  It was an "s", so we said "Good birdie" and he replied, "Want a nut."  I didn't want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I told him to wait, and asked, "What sound is green?" Alex answered, "Ssshh."  He was right, it was "sh," and we went through the routine again: "Good parrot."  "Want a nut."  "Alex, wait.  What sound is orange?"  "Ch."  "Good bird!"  "Want a nut."  We went on and on and Alex clearly got more and more frustrated.  He finally got very slitty-eyed and looked at me and stated, "Want a nut.  Nnn, uh, tuh."

Not only could you imagine him thinking, "Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?" but the point was, he had leaped over where we were had begun sounding out the letters of the words for us.  This was in a sense his way of saying to us, "I know where you're headed!  Let's get on with it," which gave us the feeling that we were on the right track with what we were doing.  These kinds of things don't happen in the lab on a daily basis, but when they do, they make you realise there's a lot more going on inside these little walnut-sized brains than you might at first imagine.

Source: 23 September 2003

Click to Play

Sadly, Alex died the first week in September 2007 at the age of 31.  Since parrots can live to be 60, his death was a shock and a cause for mourning for everyone who knew him.

"Telepathic" Parrot Sparks Rethink

A parrot with a 950-word vocabulary, a sense of humour and alleged telepathic powers is forcing a rethink of the scope for animals and humans to communicate.  The 6-year-old captive-bred African grey called N'kisi is one of the most advanced users of human language in the animal world.  The bird uses words in context, with past, present and future verb tenses.  And, like small children, it resorts to creativity to describe new ideas - for instance saying "flied" for flew and inventing the phrase "pretty smell medicine" to indicate the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, a New York-based artist.  He can also associate photographs with the real person or object - when he first met primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, after seeing her in a picture with apes, his greeting was: "Got a chimp?"  He also displays dry humour.  When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."

Dr Goodall judges N'kisi's eagerness to learn how to converse with his owner as an "outstanding example of interspecies communication," but new evidence suggests the parrot's skills may not stop with the verbal.  In an experiment witnessed on videotape by BBC Wildlife Magazine's contributor Eleanor O'Hanlon, N'kisi and his owner were put in separate rooms and filmed as the artist opened random envelopes containing picture cards.  On analysis, the parrot had used appropriate keywords three times more often than might result by chance, even though the researchers discounted responses such as "What ya doing on the phone?" when a card was drawn showing a man with a telephone and "Can I give you a hug?" after a card of a couple embracing.

The findings, reported in February's edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine, are controversial but O'Hanlon points out that many studies are under way into communications between species and are prompting fresh thinking on animal intelligence.  Professor Donald Broom, of the University of Cambridge's School of Veterinary Medicine, said: "The more we look at the cognitive abilities of animals, the more advanced they appear, and the biggest leap of all has been with parrots."

Source: Monday 26th January 2004

The above article may be stretching the bounds of credibility a bit - but I really like parrots, so I overlooked it.

Lost Parrot Tells Animal Rescuers His Name

London - An escaped parrot was reunited with his owners on Friday - after telling rescuers his name.

Animal welfare officer Debbie Sheppard said she discovered the bright green bird perched on a fence in the western English town of Swindon and took him to her home.  To her astonishment he started to "laugh and squawk" - saying the name Basil over and over again.  A check with the local police revealed a parrot of the same name had been reported missing.

"My husband couldn't believe it when he started to talk; he was coming out with all sorts of things.  Once he started, he couldn't stop," said Sheppard, who works for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Basil's relieved owner Ann Bradley said the bird was a very good mimic.  "He's just like a tape recorder.  He'll copy the telephone and say 'hello' before we've had a chance to pick it up - and tell my children to get ready for school."

Source: 9 August 2002 © Reuters Limited; all rights reserved

Pigeon Spotting

My rifle always remains the same.  It's the pigeons who change.

- Thierry Le Luron

London - Commuters are being asked to help in a study of pigeons that hop on London's Tube trains in an attempt to find out how clever the birds are.

A leading wildlife lecturer is heading the investigation into the feathered passengers after receiving confirmation that they are flitting in and out of trains on the underground system.  The question is: do they know where they are heading, or do they get on and off the trains by chance?

Nigel Reeve, of the Roehampton Institute, said that what was originally thought to be an urban myth had proven to be a regular occurrence, according to commuters.  The Circle Line is the most popular line used by the birds, with High Street Kensington the most popular Tube station.

Commuters could help by reporting instances of pigeons on underground trains, noting the stations they got on and off at, Dr Reeve said. - PA

Source: The Dominion Thursday 21 October 1998

I wondered about the outcome of this and did a search.  I could find no conclusions reached by Nigel Reeve, but I did find a site that discussed pigeon (and rat) subway riders at great length.  You can decide for yourself if their rides are purposeful.

Birds That Flock Together Take the "A" Train

Stories have been rampant for years about pigeons who step aboard the A train in Rockaway, New York, ride to the next stop, and then take off for the beach.  An intrepid New York Times reporter set out to see if there was truth to the rumours.  There is.

Regular fare-paying passengers say it all began when some brave pigeons started hopping aboard to snatch a few crumbs.  Then the doors closed and the birds found themselves getting out at the next stop and having to fly back.

These days, according to other passengers, the birds just like going for the ride.  (Those who want the crumbs, but not the ride, jump off when they hear the warning bell before the doors close!)  Other foraging birds have not yet made the leap to public transport.  Sparrows look longingly, but have never been seen boarding.  And gulls hang around on the platform and try to grab pizza crusts from the pigeons as they hop off the train.

Source: Best Friends Magazine May/June 2002 page 5

A kind pigeon: 12-week-old abandoned macaque finds a friend at an animal sanctuary in China

Source: 12 September 2007 from Photoshot

Secret of Homing Pigeons Revealed

London - The secret of carrier pigeons' uncanny ability to find their way home has been discovered by British scientists: the feathered navigators follow the roads just like we do.  Researchers at Oxford University spent 10 years studying homing pigeons using global positioning satellite (GPS) and were stunned to find the birds often don't navigate by taking bearing from the sun.  Instead they fly along motorways, turn at junctions and even go around roundabouts, adding miles to their journeys.

"It really has knocked our research team sideways," Professor Tim Guilford said in the Daily Telegraph.  "It is striking to see the pigeons fly straight down the A34 Oxford bypass, and then sharply curve off at the traffic lights before curving off again at the roundabout," he said in The Times.  Guilford said pigeons use their own navigational system when doing long-distance trips or when a bird does a journey for the first time.  But when they have flown a journey more than once they home in on an habitual route home.  "In short it looks like it is mentally easier for a bird to fly down a road...they are just making their journey as simple as possible."

Source: Thursday 5 February 2004 © Reuters all rights reserved

Pigeons Could Be Brighter than Average Three-Year-Old

But this 3-year-old isn't average...

They are more likely to land on a train track than a tree and eat a cigarette butt than a piece of bread.  But scientists have now discovered that pigeons may not be so bird-brained after all.  In fact, a study looking at the behaviour of the birds suggests they are more intelligent than the average 3-year-old.

Researchers say they have trained pigeons to recognise their own image, a trait only shared in the animal kingdom by dolphins, elephants and large primates such as chimpanzees.  During the study, the pigeons were shown live video footage of themselves and previously recorded pictures of themselves.  Each bird was then shown live images of itself with a delay of between 5 and 7 seconds.  The scientists say they were able to differentiate between the delayed footage and previously recorded film, suggesting they recalled and recognised their actions from moments before.  A previous study involving 3-year-olds found the children had trouble telling the difference between the live and pre-recorded footage after the live film was delayed by just 2 seconds.

Professor Shigeru Watanabe, of Keio University in Tokyo, who led the experiment, said previous research has also found pigeons can discriminate between paintings by Picasso and those of Monet.


They're Not Just Birdbrains

London - Birds can sleep with one eye open and half their brains awake, researchers said today.  The ability allows birds to detect approaching predators while still getting a bit of shut-eye.  "They are able to make behavioural decisions about whether they keep one half the brain awake or allow both halves of it to sleep," Niles Rattenborg said.

The behavioural physiologist at Indiana State University in Terre Haute and his colleagues believe their research, published in the science journal, Nature, is the first evidence that an animal can control sleep and wakefulness simultaneously in different parts of the brain.  Dolphins, seals and manatees also have the ability - known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep - which allows them to sleep and swim to the surface to breathe, but Rattenborg said birds seem to be able to use it at will.  "What was unique is that they are able to control it.  They can also sleep with both halves of the brain.  When they are sleeping under more risky situations they increase the proportion of their sleep with one eye open and half their brain awake," he said.

Rattenborg thinks the research could also have some implications for humans.  Some sleep disorders, such as sleep walking, are thought to occur when parts of the brain wake up while other parts are still sleeping.  "If birds can do it humans might be able to do it in some form or another," he said - Reuters

Source: The Evening Post Thursday 4 February 1999

Bird Trivia

bulletThe hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
bulletFlightless birds use their wings to help them run uphill.
bulletResearchers have found a bird species - Australia's superb fairy-wren - in which the female often deserts the nest if her own chicks disappear and a giant imposter, a young cuckoo, takes their place.
bulletNew Caledonian crows ratchet up the sophistication of their technology by sharing design improvements - perhaps the first display of this capability outside of people.
bulletFemale coots tally their eggs in nests, a rare example of an animal counting in the wild.

Fit to Be Old

Looking at what the cat dragged in

It is a cliche beloved by scriptwriters of television wIldlife programmes that predators prefer to take prey who are sick, old or young.  That would make sense, for such prey would presumably be easier to catch.  But until recently there has been surprisingly little evidence to show that it is actually true.

The theory has, however, now been put to the test.  Anders MoIler and Johannes Erritzoe of Universite Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris have compared the health of birds killed by domestic cats with those killed in accidents such as flying into windows or moving vehicles.  Their results have recently been published in the journal Oecologia.  Dr MoIler and Dr Erritzoe examined the size of the dead birds' spleens.  They chose the spleen because it is an important part of the immune system.  Birds succumbing to lots of infections, or inundated with energy-sapping parasites, have smaller spleens than healthy birds.  The size of the spleen is thus a good indicator of how immuno-compromised - in other words, sickly - the bird is.

In total, they examined more than 500 birds from 18 species.  In 16 species they found that the spleens of individuals killed by cats were significantly smaller than those of individuals killed accidentally.  The difference in size was substantial: the spleens of the species in question were, on average, a third smaller in the birds that had been killed by cats than in those killed by accidents.  In five - skylarks, house sparrows, blackcaps, lesser whitethroats and spotted flycatchers - the difference was more than half.  In only two species, robins and goldcrests, was there no discernible difference in size between the spleens of those pounced on by cats and those killed in collisions.

Dr Moller and Dr Erritzoe also checked for other differences between predator-prone and accident-prone birds, to see if they had an effect.  Weight, sex and wing length, all of which might have been forecast to be significant, were not.  But age - or rather youth - was.  Almost 70% of the birds killed by cats were youngsters.  Of those killed accidentally, half were young and half were adult.

So two-thirds of the cliche appears to be true.  Sick birds and young birds are at greater risk of ending up in a predator's stomach than healthy adults.  But old ones, at least according to this study, are not.  Perhaps age and guile count for something after all.

Source: The Economist 3 June 2000

Excuse Me, Could You Help Us?


Swan Feeds Fish at Zoo

The swan feeds fish at Safari Park in Shenzhen City

A black swan in a Chinese zoo feeds its fish friends every day to the amazement of visitors.  The swan picks up the feed and takes it to the mouths of the waiting fish, reports Southern City Papers.  "They became close friends after 3 years of playing together," say staff at Safari Park in Shenzhen City.  "Every time I come to feed the swan, all the fish follow him to the bank, with mouths open.  And he takes the food and puts some into each of the hungry mouths," says the feeder.  "When everyone has eaten enough, the swan goes back onto the water and plays with his fish friends again."

Source: 11 April 2007 photo credit Lu Feng

See also:

bulletBaby Duck Feeding Koi (an external site) - YouTube clip of a cute, clever duckling feeding his friends...

Aggressive Eagle Captured

A man found an eagle's egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen.
The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.
All his life the eagle did what the barnyard chicks did, thinking he was a barnyard chicken.
He scratched the earth for worms and insects.
He clucked and cackled and he would thrash his wings and fly a few feet into the air.
Years passed and the eagle grew very old.
One day he saw a magnificent bird above him in the cloudless sky.
It glided in graceful majesty among the powerful wind currents, with scarcely a beat on his strong golden wings.
The old eagle looked up in awe.  "Who's that?" he asked.
"That's the eagle, the king of the birds," said his neighbour.
"He belongs to the sky.  We belong to the earth - we're chickens."
So the eagle lived and died a chicken, for that's what he thought he was.

- Anthony de Mello

Eagle terrorises people on a New Hampshire beach (AP)

A bald eagle that attacked holidaymakers on a New Hampshire beach has been captured.

The bird, which has a six-foot wingspan, swooped on several terrified people in Hampton, including a young girl who was clawed by the bird.  It was finally caught in a baited net on the beach in New England yesterday.

The captured eagle (AP)

The eagle was apparently attracted by people playing football and it was during a game that 3-year-old Kayla Finn was attacked on Tuesday.  She was not seriously injured.

The 14-month-old bird had been released from a wildlife reserve in North Carolina and had made its way up the Atlantic coast to Hampton, reports the Telegraph.  Peter MacKinnon, the town's animal control officer, said: "Other beaches have sharks but we had to be different.  We had to get an aggressive eagle."

Source: Thursday 23rd August 2001

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