Research at the Pepperberg Lab

Another few weeks pass, and the high energy continues to pour out of everyone’s heart here at the Pepperberg lab. This energy can be seen especially through the different research projects we’re currently working on. Countless publications ranging from “Alex and Me” to several interviews to published articles in academia have provided our fans and the general public a solid understanding of the extensive research that the Pepperberg Lab has done with the African Greys (Griffin and Arthur). This blog entry aims to update you on the current research being done as well as answer any questions, so if you’re curious about any of the studies you read about, submit a comment and we’ll respond!

We are presently committing most of our “training time” to four projects. By “training time”, we mean the period dedicated to developing Griffin’s vocabulary while explaining to him the connection between what he sees and the name of the object. Much like infants that need explaining for what the color of bananas is or what the general word for nourishment is, i.e. food, Greys need explanations for the concept behind what an object is, and then taught how to vocalize this understanding.

Of the four projects, our “Bigger/Smaller” project shows the most progress. In this test, Griffin is presented with two objects of different sizeand color. The goal of this experiment is to examine whether Greys can distinguish that objects that differ in color and size, and also be able to vocalize which object is bigger or smaller when asked during a session. Griffin already understands the concept of colors and he is starting to grasp the idea of different sized objects, and name which one is bigger or smaller. Overall, the training for Bigger/Smaller is going very well.

One of the new colors we’re teaching him is purple. While Griffin can recognize that the object in front of him is purple, he’s still not able to vocalize completely and clearly the word for purple. This second project will take some time, since Greys learn to pronounce their sounds differently than humans do, and the ‘p’ sound is hard without lips! But once Griffin can confidently vocalize his understanding for the concept of “purple”, we can integrate the color purple into the Bigger/Smaller sessions.

One of the newer projects we started recently is explaining to Griffin the concept of “none”. Griffin already knows certain numbers and how to indicate that shapes have a certain number of corners, but the idea of none is still a pretty new concept to him. This doesn’t surprise us

because mathematicians have extensively analyzed the concept behind “none” and “zero” since its birth in the 9th century AD by the Indians, and they still don’t fully get it! At the moment, Griffin shows great progress, but developing an understanding for the concept and learning how to say the word will take some time.

The final of the four training projects is explaining the idea behind exclusion. Much like learning the process of elimination in Algebra I, where you remove the “wrong” options and consequently increase the possibility of being correct, we believe when presented with many choices, Griffin should be able to differentiate and exclude the wrong answers. Griffin shows an increasing understanding for the concept, and we hope to soon publish a new paper on these findings.

Besides these current studies, we are constantly brainstorming about future experiments, with the hope of one day better understanding these fascinating creatures. A reciprocity paper is in the works to supplement the paper the lab released last Fall.

If you liked what you’ve read, follow our blog! We try to come out with new entries every week or so. You can also be instantaneously updated about our daily activities in the lab via Twitter, which we add to at least every two days. Also, if there’s something that intrigues you about our research that you’d like to learn more about, comment below with suggestions. We do our best to keep you all updated and gladly accept recommendations. To the loyal fans from day one to newcomers joining us now, I thank you for your support and interest in our research, for it is through your efforts that we continue to thrive!

In the lab, when Dr. Pepperberg prepares to leave Griffin and Wart, she says, “Goodbye Griffin and Wart. You be good; I love you”, so in the same spirit, I say goodbye.


You be good,


  1. Oh, I’m curious about something! In this post, it sounds like it’s pretty important that Griffin is able to vocalize “purple”. Does Griffin being able to pronounce the word help in his understanding?

    Thinking back to trying to learn French, I suppose it did help me whenever I was able to say a word and have it sound vaguely like what I heard — it at least made me feel more confident — but then I probably don’t think the same way as Griffin, so I’d be curious to know what your particular rationale is :)

    • Hey Dylan,

      That’s an interesting point to bring up. I’d say pronouncing words correctly doesn’t directly help with Griffin’s understanding of the concept, but it can affect it indirectly. Like human beings, Griffin naturally prefers being tested on concepts/objects that are easier for him. He enjoys the positive reinforcements and attention, as well as the yummy nuts we give as rewards. He likes when he pronounces words correctly because it improves his confidence, like you with learning French, but it doesn’t directly affect his understanding of the concept. In conclusion, understanding a concept and being able to articulate a concept are different cognitive processes, and its important that Griffin can do both.

      Hope that answered your question!

  2. Our eleven- year -old grey HATES purple. He even growled at a purple credit card I took from my pocket, and he has only growled about three times in his life! Favorite colors are yellow and orange. Could this be a part of it? I wish Griff and Wart would be allowed to “go home” sometimes at night instead of being shut up at lab. I understand it’s all sterile scientific research, but these guys don’t necessarily understand that, and the plucking disturbs me.

    • Hey Patch,

      Griff doesn’t appear to have any sort of color preference, but if we notice anything we’ll definitely write it down and mention it in a blog post, so stay tuned for future entries! It’s interesting that your Grey likes yellow and orange because for most birds, orange can be hard to differentiate between yellow and red; maybe your Grey’s liking for yellow and orange has to do with this.

      As a veteran Grey owning, I’m sure you’ve read about or experienced parrot plucking first hand. Plucking, like nail biting, is a nervous habit difficult to wean birds off. We do all that we can to comfort and calm them down in an effort to prevent it. I can assure you that “sterile” isn’t the best way to describe our lab. Of course we keep it spotless to ensure the Greys’ health, but we do everything in our power to create a “homey” environment. There are all sorts of toys they play on, wooden perches they enjoy griping, toxic-free construction paper they enjoy shredding and similar treats to make them happy. I appreciate your suggestion about taking the birds away from the lab, but both birds actually hate traveling. We only subject them to traveling when it’s critical (ie over holiday breaks when students don’t work in the lab so we can continue to care for them, doctor appointments, etc). It’s actually frustrating on Fridays when we pressure clean their cages because both Griff and Wart get very fussy about leaving their cage; they’re VERY attached to their cages, and I’d honestly say they consider it their home.

      In conclusion, if we removed Griff and Wart even just once a week from what they consider their home, even with their cage, they’d get very nervous and actually pluck more. We take top notch care of both Greys, and really the ONLY time we aren’t giving them attention and they’re alone is at night when the lights are off and they need quiet for sleep.

      We are doing everything we can to definitively determine what cause’s Griffin’s plucking and to help him stop. That being said, his feathers look much better than they have in a while. If you have any suggestions, we’d be glad to hear them, but know that we treat our birds with the utmost love and respect. We do conduct cognitive studies with them, but this never causes us to hurt or mistreat Griffin or Wart in any way!

      Hope this answered some of your questions!


      • Honestly, the plucking disturbs me a great deal, too. I don’t know much about your environment or research training, but the impression I have is the birds are stressed. My understanding of plucking is that it is in fact a habit, but may or may not be a “nervous” one.

        My understanding is that birds spend a portion of their day preening, another portion foraging, another portion sleeping and so on. From my experience, if a bird is not given the opportunity to spend adequate time on each of their natural activities, they will spend time otherwise. For example, if a bird doesn’t have a foraging opportunity, he may spend more time preening and this often leads to plucking. Hence the habit, but perhaps not the nervousness? Of course my understanding is elementary.

        I am not overly familiar with your foundation, but I have noticed the plucking in several photos on your website. The only other photos I’ve seen are those published on your facebook page.

        Although I appreciate your response of concern about plucking, when you reference their cage attachment, unfortunately I get an even stronger impression the birds are stressed and that their plucking is from nervousness. Right or wrong, my immediate thought is they likely spend most of their time training and frequently leave their cage to do so.

        How many hours per day do the birds train?
        Do the birds leave their cages for petting without training?
        How much time do your birds spend on what activities?

        I would like to see more photos of your facility and videos of the birds. A live lab cam would be nice, too. I do appreciate your research and knowledge contribution and I’m sorry to communicate my negative impression, but my hope is that you can share information that will change my thinking.

        • Hi Kim,
          Sorry for not responding to you sooner! Thank you for your concerns and also for giving us an opportunity to address them. First let me say that I agree with you that all birds need adequate time to forage/eat, preen, and sleep. Our birds are given time to do all that, including foraging. Griffin has never liked parrot toys much but he loves cardboard boxes and sheds them to pieces and forages for food in them as well as under cups and even capped bottles (always supervised of course). He’s very talented!
          Griffin has plucked for a very long time, before I started at the Foundation, so I am ill-equipped to discuss why it started. But I can say that it has been a priority of mine to find the causes and help Griffin to stop. This has been very successful as even over a short period Griffin’s condition has dramatically improved. But as anyone who has dealt with birds plucking, results are not instantaneous and it can take many years, if ever, before the problem is resolved entirely.
          As for their ‘cage attachment’, I think what Eduardo was trying to get at is the fact that our birds view the ‘lab’ as their home. They do like their cages because they eat their meals on top of them (everybody likes where the food arrives!) but they do not spend most of their day on them. Also, the cage doors are always open and the birds can come in and out as they choose. The only time the cage doors are shut is when the birds are put to bed. More often they are sitting on someone’s hand or shoulder. Griffin likes to preen on someone’s hand, or sitting on a perch next to them. Athena thinks all shoulders were designed to be her perch. They also spend a great deal of time on one of several play tables where they get tickles (people participating in preening), foraging, and play time!
          So now let me try to answer some of your specific questions.
          How many hours per day do the birds train? Not many! We do short sessions to maintain the bird’s interest and attention. Totaled throughout a day, I would probably estimate it around an hour or two. Lots of short sessions broken up by playtime, feeding time, and quiet time.
          Do the birds leave their cages for petting without training? Yes, constantly!
          How much time do your birds spend on what activities? That’s a little hard to calculate, but I will do my best. Griffin and Athena get three meals a day, but they pick at their food throughout the day and treats during sessions. They get to spend time on their tables whenever they want to (Griffin asks to go there, Athena is learning to) and they choose the activates: shredding a box or getting tickles etc. They get a shower everyday (this has helped Griffin with his plucking) as well as nap/quiet time. I hope this answers your question.
          One thing that you may not realize is that that during the day our birds constantly have a least one person (more often two or three) with them. While they are awake our birds are never left alone, and they use this to their full advantage, getting people’s undivided attention. Even at quiet time during the day, the birds are not alone, we all just let them be and do not talk or make noise. Athena thinks the best place to nap is under someone’s hair on their shoulder.
          Finally, I would love to post more photos and videos! It is simply a time constraint that prevents me from doing so. A live cam is also a neat idea, but impractical at this time. But I will try to make it a priority to post more pictures and videos, and maybe document Griffin’s progress in stopping plucking!
          Thank you again for your thoughtful concerns and hearing our answers. If you have any further questions, please post them here or email me directly at
          Alex Foundation Manager

  3. One of the most interesting things about the work published on Alex was his ability to coin/portmanteau words (like “banerry”)– not only did it blow away another thing only humans are supposed to be able to do, but seemed to give some insight into the semantic categories salient to Alex (an apple is unlike a banana or cherry in texture, but similar in color). Have any of the other birds invented words, or manipulated them in unexpected ways?

    Also, just gotta say that this blog post is delightful and your enthusiasm for the work is contagious.

    • Hey Anna,

      I’m happy you enjoyed the blog! Both Griffin and Wart are very young; about half of Alex’s age when he passed. While the birds haven’t created new phrases yet, they’re excelling tremendously in the various studies we’re performing, and I’m sure we can expect this sort of discovery in the near future.



  4. Hey Eduardo…Just ordered Alex & Me from the local library and I’m looking forward to reading it!

  5. I’m curious as to the work being done with same/different in regards to size/amount. I know Alex was able to tell, which object was bigger. Was this ever more generalized to a concept of more and less? If shown two different size groups of objects and asked “what bigger” for example. Also if asked “what bigger” with two objects that were geometrically different was a correct answer obtained? I know children have trouble with knowing that a tall thin glass doesn’t hold more water than a short fat one when shown that they are filled with the same amount of water. Advanced concepts for a parrot. Yet if there is anything Dr. Pepperberg has taught us, it is to constantly be prepared to be surprised.

    • Hey James,

      Are you asking if Alex could distinguish size in situations other than with just 2 objects, like several groups of differing colors? If so, the answer is we never tested him on that because he was able to tell you the exact number of items. There were studies, for example, where Dr. Pepperberg had 9 blocks of varying colors (5 blue, 3 red, 2 yellow). When asked, “how many blue” he’d respond five. There was never an instance where we asked, “which group bigger”, but knowing Alex, he would have been able to pick up that concept pretty quickly. Also, Alex understood bigger/smaller in relation to numbers. For example, he could tell that between numeral two and numeral four, four was larger. So with these two kinds of studies under his belt, I would argue that he had the mental capability to evaluate bigger/smaller with several groups, since he counted items and because he clearly demonstrated an understanding of numbers on a continuum. We also did not test differing size on different shapes, but again Alex definitely had the mental capability to do it!



  6. Has an African Grey ever been tested for “What” an object is? I used this concept with my African Grey (she passed away suddenly last year). Using a similar concept Dr. Pepperberg has done in the past, I would give my Grey (Bianca), an unsweetened, dried, banana chip and tell her what it was, as I gave it to her. Thereafter, she would ask me for a banana chip (only when she wanted one) by saying “Want a Banana”? She knew what it was and when she wanted it, like a child asking for a cookie or similar food. So, this too, might prove they have the mental capability of understanding “What” an object is? We also have two dogs. She would differentiate between the two of them and call them by name when they came near her cage. Once again, identifying “What” the object was.

    • Hey Lynn,

      If I understand your question correctly, the answer is yes!! Asking “‘What’ an object is” is a basic form for many of the questions we ask. When we first trained our African Greys, we built up their vocabularies. The way we ask for an object to be identified is by saying some variation of a “what” question, like “what toy” or “what matter”. Griffen can answer “what” toy for an object we’ve trained him with much easier than he can answer if the object is bigger or smaller. This also applies to several of Griffin’s favorite food.

      If your question was has a Grey been tested on their deeper understanding of an object (like saying “want banana” in reference to a banana chip because they knew banana chips are made from bananas) the answer to that is sort of. I can’t speak for other research in other labs, but one specific instance in our lab comes to mind immediately. Alex used to call apples “banerry” because to him they looked like large cherries but tasted like bananas. While this isn’t identical to the banana chip/banana scenario, it provides more evidence that Greys are substantially smarter than we give them credit to be.

      I think this answered your question, but if I didn’t don’t hesitate to ask again in a different way.



  7. Preliminary research also seems to indicate that Alex could carry over the concept of four blue balls of wool on a tray to four notes from a piano. Pepperberg was also training him to recognize “4” as “four”. Alex also showed some comprehension of personal pronouns ; he used different language when referring to himself or others, indicating a concept of “I” and “you”.

  8. My mom had an African Grey for a few years. I’m sad to say he wasn’t the nicest amainl we thought he may have been abused before we got him. Pepper loved my mom and my (now) husband though.

  9. Hi Mieszkania Suwalki,

    We respect each and every one of our fans, and encourage them to avidly comment with any questions they have or notes they wish to express! As for other posting sites, we have a Facebook page ( and a Twitter account ( Enjoy and stay connected!


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