What looks cute and charming when it belongs to a friend, but transforms into a screaming, food-throwing test of patience when it belongs to you? A five year old child? No, a parrot; one of the most demanding pets a person can own. According to Dr. Irene Pepperberg, adjunct associate professor at the Dept. of Psychology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA., “People often buy parrots because they think of them as low maintenance pets. They think they can put them in a cage, hang a toy, put in a bowl of seeds and that’s it. They don’t realize how intelligent these birds are and how much social interaction they need.”

And if anyone knows about intelligence and social interaction in parrots, it’s Pepperberg. She’s dedicated over 30 years to research on cognition and communication in African Greys—the first and most famous of whom was Alex.

What’s so special about Alex? Irene’s devised a way for Alex to show us his smarts. Through an interactive training technique that mimics the way parrots learn in the wild, Pepperberg and her graduate students taught Alex to label over fifty different objects using English words. He knew numerous colors, shapes, materials, and could even identify quantities. Unfortunately, Alex passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. But Pepperberg and her students continue their work with their younger Greys, Griffin and Arthur.

What’s more interesting is that Alex also knew abstract concepts. Lay a handful of objects out and ask him what’s the same. He could answer shape, or color, or material, or none if there nothing was the same. He knew what was different or same and what was bigger or smaller. He could also answer how many. I bet he would have smoked Jonesy at my Pointing and Match to Sample experiments. Alex even understood that objects can have two labels—a turtle can be a turtle and it can be an animal. Tell that to a child just learning her labels and you’re likely to get into an argument. But possibly Alex’s most memorable and charming display of intelligence came when he made specific requests. “Want tickle” if he wanted to be scratched, “want water” if he was thirsty, and “want cork,” if he wanted his “avian chewing gum.”

What does this all mean to bird owners? Well, for one it explains why parrots make such difficult pets. Since parrots are a sort of avian Einsteins, restricting one to a life of solitude or boredom can create a feathered delinquent—one that continuously produces ear-shattering squawks. You can’t blame the bird though. “The bird is just trying to get the owner’s attention,” states Pepperberg. “It’s like a two year old who’s in a playpen without toys.”

Needless to say, it takes lots of work to get a well-behaved bird. The African Greys receive eight hours of direct interaction and spend additional time perched next to Pepperberg while she works. As a result, her Greys have never had any destructive behaviors triggered by boredom.

With this phenomenal need for attention, who can care for a bird? If you’re the type of owner who only has a free hour or two in the morning and evening and spends all day at work, maybe a pair of budgies or cockatiels with a big cage and lots of toys would be good. But not an African Grey or a Cockatoo. Pepperberg states, “The people who bond the most successfully with their parrots are people who work at home and can interact with their bird on-and-off throughout the day or those who can take their birds to work with them.”

Of course, attention isn’t the only consideration. There are also the financial and health considerations. Pepperberg warns that while the up-front cost is around $1000, a decent cage is at least another $600, and regular yearly health checks will run several hundred dollars a year. Then, there’s the cost of beak and toenail trims. And if the bird gets sick, the bills can skyrocket.

What if you still want a bird? How do you know if you fit the bill? Easy, take a class. Good bird sellers insist that potential owners take a basic bird care course—one where you learn a bit about nutrition, health, and behavior. That way you have a feeling for what you’re getting into. Which brings us to the question of where to get the bird.

A breeder who hand-raises and hand-feeds the birds is the way to go. Hand-raising ensures that you receive a tame bird already suited for life in your home. Birds from other sources carry a huge risk. At best, they’ve been raised by their natural parents which means you’re stuck with the job of taming. At worst, they’ve been smuggled illegally which means they’re probably unhealthy as well as untame. Given that these feathered intellects can either become faithful companions for five or more decades or become screaming, tantrum-throwing nightmares that drag on indefinitely, you’ll want to do all you can to stack the odds in your favor.

For more information on bird nutritional needs, read the blog Birds Need More Than Seeds.

If you are interested in learning more about parrots in general, visit the World Parrot Trust.

You can find out more about Dr Pepperberg and her work with African Greys at The Alex Foundation website.


Modified from an article originally appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000.


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