Dot Schwarz tells us more about Parrot intelligence.
Has your Parrot recently done or said something so unusual that you are puzzled and bewildered by the apparent cleverness. Here’s an example some time ago from my pet Greys Artha and Casper’s behaviour.
The square red sweet biscuit tin was often left on the kitchen table during birds’ out time.
During out time the pet Parrots are free in the kitchen living area. They have been taught not to land on the stove top. Drawers are closed as are doors. They are supposed to amuse themselves on the ceiling ropes Do they. Yes and no.
Either Grey Artha or Casper can land on the kitchen table, prise off a corner of the lid, extract a biscuit, and flyoff, victorious. I chase the Parrot to get back 3/4 of the biscuit then I close the lid. I replace tin in wall cupboard. Sometimes while the tin remains in on the table, I’d let Artha or Casper pull at the shut tin lid, which shakes but not opens while the Parrots are trying the corners.
Not being a genuine scientific researcher, simply an enthusiastic companion carer, I did not take notes, so I don’t recall how long it took the Greys to realize that if they prised each corner
SIMULTANEOUSLY, the lid and tin came apart.
A gentle nudge from an eager beak and a raft of biscuits was exposed. This was a learned behaviour indeed, but how had it been learned. I never taught it to them OR showed them. Showing any behaviour to an avian student using a model and a rival has a high degree of success. Not a technique in my repertoire.
You would not assume automatically that pulling at the same moment together produced the right result. They deuced the resolution themselves. They would perform the trick almost
instantaneously whenever presented with a large upside-down tin, tea caddy or a Tupperware plastic. And I would show off how clever they were to visitors.
Several years later, when semi-retired, I began to look for scientific experiments with hookbills and found plenty of evidence (research articles, books and YouTube) that different species would cooperate and master the string test with NO previous training.
Two birds pulling together to open something that would yield a reward. These tests were carried out on non-laboratory subjects or on birds especially trapped for the tests, used and then released.
Companion Parrot carers have always known, if they are observant, just how clever their companions are. However, only in the last 50 or so years has research been carried out on numerous avian species both wild and in captivity which have shown us far greater degree of behaviours which are not simply due to instinct.
We are not the only beings on the planet with personalities minds and emotions, we are just part of, not separate from the rest of the animal kingdom.” Jane Goodall
Evolution changing views
As more scientific studies are published, and more research becomes part of educated common knowledge, one well accepted version of evolution has to be rethought.
An accepted view in schools and textbooks was that evolution (I was taught this view) was like a tree with different species being the branches and homo sapiens (that is us) framing the pinnacle of that tree. That gave us the God given rights of control over the rest of creation. We had speech, planning in advance, tool making, building that were not shared by other species.
And many believed that we being cleverest were therefore in charge. Given the woeful state of the planet with species extinction, ocean degradation and fearsome climate change, we have not performed well.
Other views have emerged. We are now accepting that other species share our qualities although they may express them in different forms, Emotions like compassion, altruism, grief are no longer considered to be purely human. Cooperation in groups has also emerged as a property of different species. In the case of birds their abilities, talents are now accepted to be far more than instinct.
This applies as much to our pet psittacines. We recognize conclusions regarding avian behaviour in a different light. It is easier to see similarities between us and chimpanzees, harder to recognize a sentient and creative fellow creature in a crow, playfully pulling a friend up and down an icy roof.
There is an ethical side to this debate. Our primitive ancestors had a greater respect for animals; partly because they had to; they lived alongside them. Only with the introduction of farming and improvements in weaponry were humans able to subdue the animal kingdom. In order to justify harsh treatment of animals, they were judged inferior, denied a soul. However, there has been a reversal of this attitude going back for maybe sixty years.
This shows itself in the halting of biomedical research on chimpanzees (it is not yet illegal) and the opposition to the use of killer whales for entertainment.
Irene Pepperberg pioneer
In 1999 before his tragic death 8 years later, Irene gave a summary describing the level of cognition that Alex had already reached, since her project began in 1977 and she added the younger birds who had joined the laboratory. On her website https://Alexfoundation.org, you can learn how much further this work has progressed.
Much of this work involved direct contact between Pepperberg, her students and individual birds, most notably her first subject Alex. She describes the cognitive development of each individual.
For this reason this paper departs from conventional practice in scientific writing and makes regular use of personal nouns and pronouns (e.g. Alex and I) for the good reason that this format makes the paper easier to read. It has become clear from this work that Alex exhibits cognitive capacities comparable to those of marine mammals, apes and sometimes 4–6-year-old children (Pepperberg, 1999). Using English vocalizations, Alex labels 50 different objects, 7 colours, 5 shapes and quantities up to and including six.
He combines these labels to identify, request, refuse, categorize and quantify about 100 different objects. He has functional use of phrases such as “Come here”, “I want X” and “Wanna go Y” where X and Y are, respectively, appropriate object or location labels. Alex has concepts of category, bigger/smaller, same/different, absence and quantity; some of these will be discussed in detail below.
Of particular interest is that his abilities are inferred not from operant tasks common in animal research, but from vocal responses to vocal questions; that is, he demonstrates intriguing communicative parallels with young humans, despite his phylogenetic distance. Younger birds have begun to replicate Alex’s results.
It is unlikely that I taught Alex and other Parrots these abilities de novo. This suggests that their achievements derive from existent cognitive and neurological architectures. Although this work has interest on its own merit for researchers in psychology, biology, neurobiology, anthropology, linguistics and other scientific disciplines, the data also have implications for the treatment of psittacines in captive situations such as zoos or as human companion animals.
In December 2022 a quadrennial update was published detailing recent developments in Parrot cognition. The authors described 50 research papers forming almost an avalanche. Let me
describe some parts give you scope of the work. The results have relevance to changing
practices in Parrot and corvid husbandry while they are pointing out cognitive behaviour in various species of songbirds and other species.,
It had not been known that Grey Parrots in a laboratory situation were capable of autistic behaviour. The researchers from McGill university set up trials between eight African Grey
Parrots, six females and two males. The birds had previously learned to trade metal washers through a hole for snacks.
For this trial, each bird was in a clear-walled compartment separated by a window. One bird’s compartment had a hole that opened to the experimenter (and the treats), while the other birds didn’t. Seven of the eight birds in the inaccessible compartment gave at least one token to their partner so the partner could receive a treat from the experimenter.
When their partner’s treat window was closed, or when they had no partner at all, the Parrots passed fewer tokens through the hole. This suggests the reason they passed tokens was to help their friend receive a treat.
Brain genes related to innovation revealed in birds
Wild birds that are cleverer than others at foraging for food have different levels of a neurotransmitter receptor that has been linked with intelligence in humans. This is according to another new study led by McGill University researchers. The findings could provide insight into the evolutionary mechanisms affecting cognitive traits in a range of animals.
The findings could provide insight into the evolutionary mechanisms affecting cognitive traits in a range of animals. Glutamate brain receptors, linked with human intelligence, are also associated with problem-solving skills in wild birds.
Research in with wild birds has given us a paper published in Science Advances conducted by McGill biologists Jean-Nicolas Audet and Louis Lefebvre, in collaboration with researchers from Duke and Harvard universities.
Bullfinches and brassquits
The researchers caught bullfinches and black-faced grassquits near McGill’s Bellairs Research Institute in Barbados. Bullfinches are bold, opportunistic, and innovative, while grassquits are shy and conservative. They are each other’s closest relative in Barbados and are cousins of Darwin’s finches from the Galápagos islands.
In lab-test captivity, the problem-solving skills of the two species differed considerably. Most of the bullfinches quickly figured out how to lift the lid off a jar of food. For example, while all the grassquits were stumped by the challenge. These performances were in line with the differences in the birds’ innovativeness in the wild — a trait that can help animals survive in changing environments.
Brain properties of the two species
A family of genes stood out: glutamate neurotransmitter receptors, especially in the part of the bird brain that corresponds to humans’ prefrontal cortex. Glutamate receptors are known to be involved in a variety of cognitive traits in humans and other mammals.
“By comparing an extremely innovative species like the Barbados bullfinch with a closely related conservative one like the black-faced grassquit, we gain insight into the evolutionary mechanisms that can lead to divergence in behaviour,” Audet one the authors says.
“It might be that mammals, including humans, and birds like the Barbados bullfinch use similar mechanisms to perform cognitively. If our results are confirmed in future studies, it would be a unique demonstration of convergent evolution of intelligence. It involves the same neurotransmitter receptors despite the widely different brain structures.
Carl Safina in Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, writes “It’s categorically wrong to say that animals don’t have thoughts and emotions, just like it’s wrong to say they are completely the same as us.” Scientists were often sneering at anthropomorphism. This is a mistake. We need sympathy and empathy to understand the mentality of animal and bird behaviour as we are at such a risk of extinction ourselves.’
Safina again Great apes have large brains and complex social lives, wolves live in structured families. But herrings don’t have social structures. So we can’t say all animals are the same.
The cruelty with which human beings treat our fellow creatures may well be improving as we discover learn to recognize more similarities to ourselves.
So the evolution of their brains is convergent. What emerges with greater clarity is that their abilities, every aspect of their lives, vocal dexterity, social life, tool use, altruistic behaviour, take any aspect and are more highly developed than previously accepted
We as stewards and carers of captive birds have a duty to give them a captive environment where they can express themselves as far as possible.
Rossier,T., Auersberg, A.M. Recent Developments in Parrot cognition. This paper gives descriptions of some 50 articles written on the topics of Parrot cognition.