Parrot Learning

Parrot Learning

Teaching animals to speak English is an extremely difficult task, and few researchers have had much luck. Still, there has been some success with chimps and other primates, and even with parrots. In this Science Update, you'll hear from a parrot researcher who believes that birds may develop language-like communication and other abilities in ways remarkably similar to humans.


Are birds really bird-brained? I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

As toddlers learn to put two words together, they're also learning to put two objects together, like a little cup and a big cup. Likewise, trios of words follow trios of objects. This phenomenon was thought to be unique to primates.

(Parrot: "Want nut.")

That's Griffin, an African Grey parrot. Today, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Irene Pepperberg described how Griffin is showing the same sort of development.


At the same time he's beginning to say "want a nut," he's beginning to combine two objects, so we started looking at it for the three objects.

Sure enough, when the bird later learned to put together and take apart three items, he also learned to combine three words into more complex thoughts.

(Parrot: "Want cork nut.")

So here you have creatures who have incredibly different evolutionary histories and exhibiting the same types of behavior that supposedly involve particular brain structures. And at this time, people thought these brain structures were mammalian.

She says this could mean that the origins of complex communication go back far longer than was thought, and may be exhibited in more creatures than just primates. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

The verb "to parrot" commonly means to repeat something mindlessly, without any thought behind it. If Irene Pepperberg's parrots ever got wind of this term, they might be offended. They may not be ready to perform King Lear on Broadway, but they certainly show a mastery of language that's far more advanced than most people give birds credit for.

Never mind the fact that Griffin (and his older counterpart, Alex) can ask not only for a nut but the kind of nut they desire, identify objects by their shape or color, or label the number of objects they're looking at. Or that when shown a blue triangle and a blue square, they can say what's the same ("Color!") and what's different ("Shape!"). That's all back-story.

This particular study is about making verbal and visual combinations. It's well known that in child development, children are able to combine physical objects at about the same time that they can combine verbal concepts. For example, they can put a small cup inside a bigger cup at about the same time that they can put two words together sensibly, like "want cookie." Putting together three objects coincides roughly with the ability to put together three words, like "want more cookie."

At first, this seemed like one more ability that separated humans from other animals. But then it was discovered that sign-language trained apes followed the same developmental stages. Now, it looks like Pepperberg's parrots do as well. That's striking not only because it moves this sort of conceptual ability well beyond humans and primates, but also into a kind of animal with a very different kind of brain.

This research opens up a number of intriguing questions. For example, in humans and apes, this sort of development is believed to emerge from the maturing of a specific brain structure. Is there a comparable structure in the brains of parrots, or birds in general, even though bird brains are organized very differently? If so, what and where is it?

Also, how does this kind of intellectual development play out in the wild? Wild parrots don't speak English, but they do communicate. Is parrot language more like human language in structure than we might suspect? Pepperberg would like to find out, although it's very difficult to study parrot communication in the wild, because they travel great distances over short periods of time and are exposed to a far greater variety of sounds and stimuli than those raised in captivity. Still, she hopes to gain some insights by planting recording devices in the parrots' nests and keeping track of the vocalizations between parents and their offspring.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the developmental process that Pepperberg's team is studying?
  2. How are parrots like humans in this regard?
  3. How might other scientists apply Pepperberg's research to working with human children?
  4. Are there any hallmarks of human communication that cannot be replicated in animals? What do you think they are?
  5. If you were to design a study to test your answer to #4 (for example, using parrots, or sign-language-using apes), what would your procedure be like?

For Educators

The Alex Foundation is an organization that applies Dr. Pepperberg's research to a range of issues, including animal brain function, wildlife conservation, and child development.

Neuroscience for Kids offers this section on language development in humans and other animals.

Tufts University has a site on Primate Use of Language that gives insight into sign language communication in orangutans and other non-human primates.

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