What’s Happening with Your Parrot’s Research? -
Your Bird in Alex’s World
The Alex Foundation receives a lot of mail regarding teaching parrots in the home. Almost all owners would like to know how their parrot can learn like Alex. Because we don’t know each individual situation, it’s a tough question to answer. But we’d like to address some of the more general questions to you--the everyday parrot owner--in this month’s newsletter.
The most important factor to consider is why you want your parrot to learn. Many of Alex’s concepts—color, numbers, size, etc.—do not have practical applications in the common parrot’s home. However, if your parrot, like Alex, learns to ask for what he or she wants, both their world and yours becomes a thing of wonder.
The majority of parrots have no control over what happens to them each day. Most people work away from home, leaving parrots in a cage with a few toys, for at least 8 or 9 hours a day. Imagine leaving a four to six year-old child in a playpen for the same amount of time, a child who cannot ask for what they want, and you’ll get some idea of an African Grey’s everyday existence.
Now imagine what a different world your African Grey would live in if he or she could demand, “want pets,” “want out,” and “want play.” Even these few commands could help alleviate a bit of the frustration these wild animals might be feeling in a human environment. As humans, we always feel better when our needs are met. With an animal, being able to ask to have their needs met must seem like an entirely new existence.
Although it isn’t possible within the scope of this article to fully explain how to teach your parrot simple commands, we can give you some basic principles to start you on your way. The first and most important source you should familiarize yourself with is Dr. Pepperberg’s book, The Alex Studies (available at the gift shop of www.alexfoundation.org). The book tells the story of the beginning of Dr. Pepperberg’s research, how she began to realize the learning abilities of African Greys, and how she developed the teaching tools to begin her pioneering work.
This amazing book will help you understand how the parrot mind works, and having this general knowledge can help you develop your own approaches for teaching your own bird. That being said, there are still some fundamental principles and aspects that must be followed in teaching an African Grey to truly communicate.
Dr. Pepperberg based her successful approach to teaching parrots vocal labels by modifying the Model/Rival principles developed by Dr. Dietmar Todt. Dr. Todt’s teaching methods used humans to assume the role of parrot peers in the wild. In Dr. Todt’s work, one human always acted as the trainer, and another human always acted as the model/rival—a model for the parrot’s behavior AND a simultaneous rival for the attention of the trainer. Dr. Todt’s African Greys learned much more quickly by observing the human interaction than they had by other methods. Although Dr. Todt’s intention for training had not been meaningful communication (but optimal learning conditions), it was observed that the birds only interacted with their particular trainer, and learned only the phrase spoken by the model/rival, never that of the trainer.
Dr. Pepperberg modified the Model/Rival technique by alternating the role of trainer with that of the model/rival, so the bird sees that one person is not always the questioner and the other the respondent. Also, she uses several different people to act as both trainer and model/rival. In very simplistic terms, this allows the parrots to perceive the label they are learning as “global” in application, and helps the bird understand that it too can ask questions or make demands. When using Dr. Pepperberg’s methods, the parrot’s mind interprets the vocal utterance of “cork” as “that brown spongy thing”--with not only the two humans currently asking questions, but ALL humans who ask this question.
Dr. Pepperberg’s ability to show parrots that vocal labels were global was a breakthrough in animal-human communication. It calls to mind the scene in The Miracle Worker, in which Helen Keller understands that the finger pattern made by her teacher represents the water flowing over her hand. It was THAT sensational.
For your bird to truly learn the meaning of vocal labels, you must not only use the same methods of Dr. Pepperberg, but also employ them in the same manner. In addition to family members, it’s a good idea to have several friends stop by for a few training sessions. The more people that apply the same vocal label to an object, item or action, the more clearly your parrot will understand the universality of the label to that object, item or action.
When training, the trainer and model/rival must also demonstrate wrong or mispronounced vocal labels, so the bird learns that not any new sound it makes is appropriate. When the wrong answer or mispronunciation is given, the trainer turns away with the object in hand, sometimes saying “no” at the same time. The model/rival then gets a second chance before the humans change roles. When the human model/rival says the correct answer, he or she receives the object from the trainer, and acts very happy in doing so. Here’s a brief example of a training session, from The Alex Studies.
In this exchange, Dr. Pepperberg and Bruce Rosen (secondary trainer) are trying to improve Alex’s pronunciation of the label “five.”
Dr. Pepperberg (acting as trainer): “Bruce, what’s this?”
Bruce (acting as model/rival): “Five wood.”
Dr. Pepperberg: “That’s right, five wood. Here you are…five wood. (She hands over five wooden craft sticks to Bruce. Bruce begins to break one apart, much as Alex would.)
Alex (acting as parrot): “’ii wood.”
Bruce (Now acting as trainer, he quickly replaces the broken stick and presents the five sticks to Alex.)
“Better…” (Bruce briefly turns away then repositions himself in visual contact with Alex) “…how many?”
Bruce: (Bruce turns from Alex to establish visual contact with Dr. Pepperberg) “Irene, what’s this?” (Presents sticks)
Dr. Pepperberg: (now acting as model/rival) “’ii wood.”
Bruce: “Better…” (Bruce turns away from Dr. Pepperberg, then resumes eye contact with her) “…how many?”
Dr. Pepperberg: “FIVE wood” (takes wooden sticks) “…five wood.” (Now Dr. Pepperberg acts as trainer again, directs her gaze to Alex and presents the sticks to him) “…how many wood?”
Alex: “Fife wood.”
Dr. Pepperberg: “OK, Alex, close enough…fivvvvve wood…here’s five wood. (She places one stick in Alex’s beak and the others within close reach)
Again, this is just an example of a training session. Please know that this article’s explanation of the Model/Rival method is very generalized--teaching your parrot with this method can be complex, and not without disappointment. The beginning sessions with your bird probably won’t elicit the same accuracy as the example above, or even an appropriate response. However, one gal in our group did experience the “k” sound from her African Grey the first time she attempted to teach the vocal label of “key!”
Get a copy of The Alex Studies, read it from cover to cover, and you’ll be in a very good place to begin to teach your parrot to communicate with you.
Teaching your parrot with the Model/Rival method is a serious undertaking, requiring a close, impartial observation of your bird’s reaction. Start off with one or two separate short training sessions (five minutes each), and then increase the frequency and length of the sessions once your bird begins to learn. There is no hard and fast rule as to when to increase the time length or the frequency of sessions. Your bird’s response to your teaching, their enthusiasm or lack of it, is the best indicator. Regularity is also another important aspect. Your birds can’t be expected to learn from a hit-or-miss method of training—sessions should take place daily (with perhaps one or two days off each week) to facilitate their learning.
It is also important that the teaching environment be quiet, with no distractions such as TV or interaction between other family members. Alex learned his stuff quickly because he was given five or six sessions per day, with a lot of personal attention directed only toward him. In the past year, because of lack of funding, the learning rate of Wart and Griffin has slowed significantly, mainly because we can only afford two sessions per day by hired help. And because the lab is all in one room, the birds are often distracted by other goings-on in their environment, particularly Alex’s interruptions of Grif’s and Wart’s sessions!
Which brings up our most pressing need…
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