Dr. Pepperberg Speaks at WSU on Parrot Cognition

Alex demonstrates parrot intelligenceLast week, Cari from the WSU Raptor Club told us about an upcoming seminar on parrots. Dr. Irene Pepperberg was presenting the 2018 Robert Jonas Lecture in Biological Sciences, “Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots,” on March 27th. Coincidentally earlier that week, Zach and I had just finished reading a book by Dr. Pepperberg, Alex and Me. The book describes her journey to becoming one of the world’s leading experts on animal cognition. In summary, hookbills contributed greatly to Dr. Pepperberg’s life; first, growing up with a budgeriar (parakeet) for a best friend and later with African Grey Parrots as “research colleagues,” as Pepperberg calls them.

It’s impossible to know what a person is thinking without that person telling us. Having words for different objects and feelings allows us to communicate what we’re thinking. Using a model/rival teaching technique, Pepperberg taught her grey parrot, Alex, to identify a number of different objects, materials, sizes, and numbers. Armed with the words to describe the world around him, Alex answered questions asked by Pepperberg, which were designed to test his intelligence. Pepperberg’s rigorous test methods left little room for argument: African Grey Parrots have abilities that rival a 2-5 year old human child.

We were so excited to hear she would be presenting! On our way over to Todd Hall, we debated how many people we thought would attend and discussed Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson and other scientists who’s research provided ground-breaking insight into animal behavior and wildlife. We knew we would have the opportunity to ask her a question. As we walked around looking for Todd Hall, we wracked our brains – surely after just reading her book we would have some really good questions. But, nothing.

The room was small, with seating for only about 50 people, so the aisle was packed with standing attendees. Pepperberg started by describing her numerical studies with Alex, much of which we had read in her book. For the second half of her presentation, she talked about more recent studies with one of her newer African grey parrots, Griffin. Since Alex’s unexpected death in 2007, Griffin has been the primary focus of Pepperberg’s research. Pepperberg and Griffin have demonstrated that (at least one) African Grey Parrots interpret probability similar to how humans do. For example, let’s say there is a jar with 3 blue marbles and 1 yellow. Without looking, a researcher randomly pulls a marble from the jar and asks a person to guess what color it is. Before the age of 7, human children might have a guess and a rationale behind their guess (e.g. “Yellow. Because yellow is my favorite color.”) Around the age of 7, a human child will generally understand the concept that, because there are more blue marbles in the jar, the chances are greater that a blue marble will be drawn. They will also see that there is a yellow marble and understand that there is a slight chance that this marble will be drawn occassionally. Indeed, if a marble is drawn 100 times and replaced each time, most humans guess “blue” 75% of the draws and “yellow” 25% of the draws. This makes sense; it “feels right” (though, when sampling with replacement, is NOT the statistically best guess, which would be to guess “blue” for every draw). Anyhow… it turns out that when asked to guess the color during a test like this, Griffon chose just like most humans would!

For me, the take-home from Dr. Pepperberg’s work is not that Alex could add numbers or Grey Parrots are able to perform statistical calculations (although both of these statements may be true), but that wild animals have abilities beyond what meets the eye. Each day, wild animals are required to process multiple streams of information about their environment and produce behaviors that allow them to survive and reproduce: A bird may process pros/cons to a big seed… “this big seed will provide a lot of calories and will keep me full for a long time, but is that seed too big to fit into my beak and how much time and energy will I have to spend opening that big shell? Deer in my study area face behavioral trade-offs between foraging and predation risk… this field is full of nutritional plants, but is it too close to the wolf den? Some process – intelligence? cognition? thinking? – governs these decisions for each creature.

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