I am Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a researcher at Harvard University in the field of animal cognition, specifically of African Grey parrots. My work began with Alex, a colleague of mine for 30 years, who was shown to have the emotional age of about a 2 year old child and the intelligence of up to a 5-6 year old child. Our research in areas such as shapes, colors, bigger-or-smaller, and number concepts, revolutionized what the world knew about avian cognition. Following in his footsteps are Griffin, a 20 year old Grey, and Athena, a 2 year old Grey.

These days my work is entirely supported by The Alex Foundation: http://alexfoundation.org I hope you’ll take a few minutes to look at our website and Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Alex-Foundation/82141807119 and perhaps even be moved to make a contribution there. The Alex Foundation runs entirely on a small number of public contributions; even contributions of a few dollars help greatly!

Ask me anything about my research, including my lab, the parrots I work with, or anything related to general animal cognition. Please nothing regarding personal parrot or pet care, or working with your own animals on cognitive and communicative tasks. If you have a question or concern about your animal’s behavior or health, talk to your veterinarian!

Proof: http://alexfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/DrPepperbergAMA-1024x976.jpg

6:06pm....will be online for about another half-hour...

6:36pm...Been really fun chatting, and thank you for all your questions...but Griffin and Athena are losing patience with watching me type and want my attention, so..... Note that some of your questions are actually answered in Alex & Me... Til next time....

Comments: 142 • Responses: 21  • Date: 

aubirey25 karma

Hi Irene, this is your student Sam! So glad the AMA is going well.

As you know, the other day a TIL post about your work became a huge hit on the site and was upvoted to the front page. It claimed that Alex became the first ever animal to ask an 'existential' question, by asking what color he was. When you and I chatted yesterday you clarified for me exactly how Alex asked this and the situation which prompted the question. Would you please explain to Reddit the real story, and the reality of these claims of an 'existentialist question'?

iampepper1648 karma

The story had some basis in reality, but was overblown. Alex saw himself in a mirror and asks "What's that?"..."What color?"--questions he'd ask when he saw novel things. (Of course, that in itself is interesting...that he recognized novelty, was curious, and had the ability to question us!) So we have no idea if he really understood if he knew it that he was seeing himself...we just don't know.

ungendered10 karma

What was your favorite moment with Alex?

What is one thing he did or said (not necessarily in a study) that amazed you?

iampepper1625 karma

I was most surprised when Alex transferred the concept of "none"--trained with respect to the concept of absence of similarity or difference between two objects--to the absence of a numerical set. He had, without any training, figured out a zero-like concept, something that western civilization didn't have until around the 1600s. It wasn't identical to the human concept of zero, but quite similar.

prinnydood72210 karma

Have you done research on the intelligence of cockatoos and if so where do they rank in intelligence compared to other parrots you've tested?

iampepper1622 karma

I don't study cockatoos, but my colleagues in Austria are doing amazing work with them. These studies mostly involve some kind of tool use--cockatoos are the "oranguans" of the avian world. This type of intelligence is different from that demonstrated by Alex, but is equally important.

Charlie246016 karma

Would you happen to have any links or publications we could look at? This sounds fascinating, and I'd love to read more.

iampepper1611 karma

Google "Auersperge"...the papers should come up...

joytom22710 karma

Dr. Pepperberg, your work is inspirational. Where do you most need support to advance your research?

iampepper1614 karma

Thank you!

Funding is always difficult...we spend most of our money for paying the students who take care of the birds' needs, help train and test them, and keep them company. We feed the birds an organic diet, which is not inexpensive. So any financial assistance is helpful to keep the lab going...even a few dollars to contribute to the grocery bills will be appreciated!

arsesq10 karma

Did Alex die from the stress of having to learn all the time (as was asserted on a recent TIL)? Does working with you subject a bird to stress at all?

iampepper1639 karma

We treat our birds like human toddlers...so they have plenty of "down" time, plenty of time for play (with their toys and with the humans in the lab). We do talk to them all the time, but, again, that's the way one treats toddlers.

All our birds can opt out of sessions...they can say "Wanna go back" (to their cage)--or they can simply ignore us! Or, like Alex and Griffin, they can 'play games'--so Alex and Griffin will sometimes give us all the wrong answers, and we suspect that they actually are having some fun with us.

BTW...Alex died of a heart arrhythmia...my veterinarian said that she has seen this even in very young parrots who live in households...so I doubt that stress was a particular issue.

Classicrockgirl967 karma

Hi Dr. Pepperberg,

First I must say your research has been an inspiration to me and sparked my love of animal (and more specifically avian) cognition. I was wondering why you decided to focus on African Grays as opposed to other parrots? Also, are you planning on beginning other projects eventually with other species of parrot? Finally, if you're comfortable sharing, what other aspects of avian cognition are you planning on exploring? Thank you so much for the work that you have done; Alex was incredible and I hope that Griffin and Athena follow in his footsteps.

iampepper1615 karma

When I decided to work with parrots in the 1970s, very little research had been done. However, there were fascinating papers by my German colleagues on number concepts and vocal learning in Greys, so that I could refer to those studies as a justification for why I wanted to work with Greys when I wrote my own grant proposals. Several articles also claimed that Greys had the clearest human speech (they actually have slightly different musculature in their vocal tract). Thus I decided to begin with Greys--which weren't actually very popular at the time.

At this time, I have no plans to work with other species--we would need totally separate space according to animal care regulations. Years ago, at the University of Arizona, we did a little bit of work with budgerigars--they can learn referential speech, but their attention span is short and thus it is more difficult to work with them.

We have so many different project planned...too many to discuss at this point!

Classicrockgirl963 karma

Also, can you explain the model-rival technique? I understand the basics but I am not exactly sure how you implement it in lab.

iampepper1615 karma

Essentially, we demonstrate to the bird what it is we want it to learn.

It is based on methods developed by Todt (1975) and Bandura (1971), and it uses three-way social interactions among two humans and a parrot, as a way to demonstrate the vocal behavior that is to be learned. The parrot observes two humans handling and speaking about one or more objects and how these individuals interact with each other. As the parrot watches and listens, one trainer presents objects and queries the other trainer about them, with such expressions as “What’s here?,” “What color?,” giving praise and transferring the named object to the human partner as a reward for correct answers. Incorrect responses are punished by scolding and by temporarily removing items from sight. Thus the second human serves both as a model for the parrot’s responses and its rival for the trainer’s attention, and also illustrates the consequences of errors. The model must try again or talk more clearly if the response was deliberately made incorrectly or garbled; that is, the model is subject to the process of corrective feedback and the bird observes it. The parrot is also included in the interactions: it is queried and rewarded for successive approximations to correct responses, and training is adjusted to its performance level. If a bird is inattentive or its accuracy regresses, trainers threaten to leave. Unlike M/R procedures others have used, we interchange roles of trainer and model, and include the parrot in interactions. This procedure emphasizes that a questioner is sometimes a respondent, and demonstrates that the procedure can effect environmental change. Role reversal also counteracts an earlier methodological problem: birds whose trainers always maintained their respective roles responded only to the particular human questioner (Todt 1975). With our technique, birds will respond to, interact with, and learn from any human. M/R training uses only intrinsic reinforcers: to ensure the closest possible linkage between labels or concepts to be learned and their appropriate referent, the reward for uttering “X” is access to X, the object to which the label or concept refers. Earlier attempts to teach birds to communicate with humans that were unsuccessful used extrinsic rewards: a single food was used that was neither related to, nor varied with, the label or concept being taught. This procedure delayed label and concept acquisition by confounding the label of the targeted exemplar or concept with that of the food reward. We never used extrinsic rewards. Use of the label to request the item from the start also demonstrates to the bird that uttering labels is functionally useful.

iampepper167 karma

When I decided to work with parrots in the 1970s, very little research had been done. However, there were fascinating papers by my German colleagues on number concepts and vocal learning in Greys, so that I could refer to those studies as a justification for why I wanted to work with Greys when I wrote my own grant proposals. Several articles also claimed that Greys had the clearest human speech (they actually have slightly different musculature in their vocal tract). Thus I decided to begin with Greys--which weren't actually very popular at the time.

At this time, I have no plans to work with other species--we would need totally separate space according to animal care regulations. Years ago, at the University of Arizona, we did a little bit of work with budgerigars--they can learn referential speech, but their attention span is short and thus it is more difficult to work with them.

We have so many different project planned...too many to discuss at this point!

hstarbird116 karma

Hello Dr. Pepperberg! I was introduced to you at an avian conference once but got so flustered all I could do was tear up! I just want to say thank you so much for everything you have done for the field of animal behavior, particularly the advancement of avian cognition. You are the reason I am not laughed at when I say I want to study parrot intelligence. I am so thankful for all of your amazing research. I will be attending grad school for my Masters of Avian Science. My life and career is for the birds and it's all thanks to you!

Onto the question! I know that you've worked with male greys in the past and Athena is the first female in your lab. Have you found any major differences in how she is learning or responding to training? I know my grey turns into a feathery ball of hormones when the days start getting longer, have any of her natural mating behaviors interfered with your research? Or is she still too young? Does she seem to be more willing to work with men or does she work with both men and women?

iampepper1611 karma

The answer right now is that Athena is still a 'baby'...just barely 2 years old. So we don't know what will happen in the future. The two reasons we got a female was (a) we had never worked with one before and wanted to see if there were any differences (although with a small "N" it is likely that individual differences would outweigh sex differences) and (b) we wanted to avoid male-male aggression that we had seen before.

So far, we really don't see any differences in learning, and she works with males and females equally well.

Also, the birds are on 12 hr light-dark cycles to mimic what they would have in equatorial Africa, and to ensure that they get enough rest....so day-length isn't an issue.

WinniFrog6 karma

It's you! Loved your documentary.

What would you have taught Alex if he were still alive?

iampepper1619 karma

We would have continued to work on some number concepts, and would have explored further the possibility of his understanding of how his labels were made of different sounds that could be recombined to make new labels. We would have done some of the tests we've done with Griffin, as well. Most importantly, Alex was beginning to learn how to act as Griffin's trainer (rather than just interrupting Griffin's sessions), and we were very excited about that aspect of the work.

szlash6 karma

Do you do lectures/speeches non-students can attend? :)

iampepper1612 karma

I often talk to groups of parrot owners, and sometimes universities invite me to give public lectures. Look at our website, www.alexfoundation.org, to check my schedule. We try to keep it up-to-date.

ArcadeRenegade5 karma

Dr. Pepperberg,

What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding having parrots as pets. I ask this because I recently watched the Parrots Confidential documentary and it's really sad to see the state a lot of domesticated parrots are in. There are lots of parrots with great loving homes but even then parrots may become stressed for a variety of reasons. In homes where they don't get adequate attention the parrots end up in much worse shape. Do you think it's right to own a parrot as a pet? I feel like we take so much away from them living a domesticated life. Do you think having a smaller parrot as a pet is more acceptable because they aren't as intelligent and prone to stress, boredom, and loneliness and the large parrots?

I'm a bird owner myself. I have a Green Cheek Conure that I adore but some part of me feels guilty. I just try to give him the happiest life that I can provide.

iampepper168 karma

Another important issue. Having a parrot as a pet is a life-long commitment, and often one that is longer--a bird could outlive its owner. Moreover, being a successful parrot owner has a lot to do with the owner's lifestyle.

I tell people who work full-time outside their home, who have lots of outside interests, who travel a lot, that a parrot is NOT for them. In contrast, someone who works at home, is basically a homebody, might be successful...but even so, the bird will require a lot of work and attention. I know people who own a business and who take their bird to work every day who have happy and well-adjusted pets; I also know people who are home with their birds all the time who are not successful.

In short--I'm not saying that one should not have birds as pets, but I am saying that one must really think hard and long about the commitment, the work involved in keeping them happy and healthy, and the extent to which one is willing to make changes to accommodate such a demanding companion animal.

mrshatnertoyou5 karma

Could you talk a little bit about the African Greys habitat and if there are threats from an environmental perspective to these wonderful birds?

iampepper1611 karma

The areas in which Greys live (equatorial Africa) are threatened by habitat destruction and by warfare; it is the same habitat in many instances that is shared by endangered apes and elephants. The birds are still subject to poaching. They are on CITES lists...but protecting them is a very difficult proposition. The people who are involved in poaching are trying to survive in difficult situations themselves, and until humans figure out how to change the entire system, problems will continue.

LostxinthexMusic5 karma

What other kinds of birds do/have you work(ed) with? How do they compare to African Greys in intelligence, personality, etc.?

iampepper166 karma

See responses to some other questions below!

meowmixiddymix4 karma

How hard is it to do research and find funding for research with parrots?

iampepper169 karma

The research is exciting and interesting, and can be difficult or easy depending on the task we are doing. Finding funding is a separate issue--right now, it is quite difficult to find funding from agencies in the US, such as the National Science Foundation, for research on animal cognition, which is why we have The Alex Foundation....

jhomolari4 karma

So glad you are doing this! I had heard that the modeling techniques you use with the birds has been useful when working with children as well. How did you come up with these techniques and how do the emotional and intellectual abilities of human children compare to those of parrots?

iampepper1610 karma

Years ago, a colleague who was working with children with various disabilities, such as being on the autistic spectrum, and I adapted our modeling techniques to work with these children. We had a lot of success. The extent to which the child increased his or her communication abilities depended on the starting point, but all children improved quite a bit.

Grey parrots seem to have the emotional age of a 2 yr old...but our studies show that they have the intellectual abilities of 5-6 yr old children.

toadbearman3 karma

Shouldn't we be asking your test subjects the questions? ;-)

iampepper1613 karma

If they could type...;-)

ScurrilousKnave3 karma

It's wonderful to have you with us, Dr. Pepperberg! I'd read a great deal about you and Alex in the past, and was fascinated by your research.

I suppose if I had one question, it would be this. Some critics of your research with African greys consider it an example of operant conditioning rather than proof of true intelligence. Personally, I'm in your camp on this one, but what argument or evidence would you give to the contrary?

iampepper1618 karma

A very good question!! I'll try to respond without using too much jargon...and I'll give a VERY simple example, because I could write a long essay!

In operant conditioning, the experimenter sets up a situation in which the subject can learn an association between, for example, an object and a sound. However, the subject may not understand that this sound (i.e., a "label") can be transferred to many different examples of this object (e.g., all sorts of balls). The subject may learn to make the association between the sound and another example more quickly than in the original set of trials, but it is not likely to be immediate.

The way we train our parrots, through a modeling technique, they learn the concept that is associated with the sound, so that they will transfer the connection between the sound and many related objects immediately.

This is just ONE example...as I said, I could write an essay on the topic...

RosieKingsley3 karma

How is your research going? And I know I may sound stupid but do parrots acually repeat what their owners say?

iampepper1615 karma

Research is going very well. We've shown that Griffin can understand how to reciprocate with a human to maximize his reward in a task. We have shown that Griffin can pass the "marshmallow test" given to young children. We are working on several other tasks, and on training the baby, Athena, to label objects.

Parrots can repeat their owners' speech...whether that repetition is meaningful or not depends on how the bird is trained.

[deleted]2 karma


iampepper168 karma

Really difficult to actually know the 'average' lifespan of a species, as parrots have been in captivity for relatively short time periods compared to other species, and many parrots die quite young as a consequence of poor diet and lack of proper care. Arthur died of a disease, PDD (proventricular dilation disease), that veterinarians think may be transferred from mother to chick and triggered by some other minor disease, although other possible explanations for PDD exist (see http://alexfoundation.org/arthur/). Alex died of heart arrhythmia (see my response to another question posted here), which can occur at any age.