The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot


SOURCE:Harvard University

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The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot is not only a talented imitator. perched on a shoulder, he is capable of thoughtful social behavior and of implementing sophisticated strategies thanks to pure intelligence. Several scientists and biologists have studied the cognitive behavior of its magnificent birds.



For almost 30 years, Irene Pepperberg, American scientist, taught her parrot Alex, a gray from Gabon  African Grey Parrot who has become a world star, dozens of words, but also colors, shapes, materials, figures. This animal was able to count, to determine the nature of the material of the object presented to him, but also to answer questions, without being mistaken. Above all, he used the words he knew on purpose, and in specific contexts.

To achieve these results, Irene Pepperberg used the engine of frustration: clipped wings and raised alone, Alex The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot was forced to speak to get what he wanted. If it had lived longer (the life expectancy of the species is more than fifty years), the animal could probably have further enriched its vocabulary.


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The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot


By working with several specimens, Dalila Bovet first noticed the spontaneity of their learning. “Zoé, Léo, and Shango have captured words and situations that they have been able to place in appropriate contexts,” explains the biologist. They greeted us for example with a “goodbye” in the evening when we left, but never in the day when we left the room. This suggests that their thought preceded the words they used. “



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Rather than focusing on learning words, the biologist sought to understand their language. After months of work to compare tens of hours of recording, Dalila Bovet ended up identifying a hundred vocalizations, a small number of which referred to specific emotions, such as anger or surprise.

But, presented to other parrots, these cries provoked no reaction. “We deduced from this that our specimens had invented their own communication code by agreeing to associate a sound with a context,” she explains.

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Confronted with complex situations, Zoé, Léo and Shango were thus capable of thoughtful social behaviors and elaborate strategies. Dalila Bovet, for example, presented them with a meal tray connected to 2 strings to measure their level of cooperation. To get their lunch, the parrots had to pull each end. Without difficulty, they understood the instructions and coordinated.


As with the primate, could the parrot’s brain have developed under the influence of the group?

In their natural state, the Gabonese grays gather in the evening to protect themselves from predators, but separate or recreate smaller groups during the day to search for food. “This organization has been able to contribute to the development of a social brain because it requires intellectual flexibility and individual recognition and categorization capacities to identify the place of each fellow member of the group in his own sphere,” explains Dalila Bovet.

The monogamy of the species could also play a role in the development of the intelligence to manage the relationships of the couple in the long term, which – as for the humans – obliges to deploy sometimes treasures of ingenuity, patience or negotiation.

At first sight, Griffin The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot does not seem smarter than a 4-year-old – it’s just a bird after all. However, a Gray from Gabon can easily surpass young children on some intellectual tests, including one that measures the understanding of volume


The classic Piagetian test works as follows: show a child 2 glasses of identical juice and ask him which he wants. The child will laugh and say that they are the same. Then pour the juice into separate containers – one large and thin, the other small and wide – and ask the child to choose.

The Gray of Gabon the most talented bird of the parrot family

The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot

Children up to 6 years old typically choose the largest container, thinking it contains more juice.

In comparison, Griffin The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot was not taken aback – and was even smart enough to watch the tests that were intended to deceive him – in the face of experiments conducted by Irene Pepperberg, associate researcher at the Harvard Psychology Department, and Francesca Cornero’s Harvard too.

Two different parrot juice containers were shown, which were then poured into sections of which one had a false bottom to give the impression that the contents of the containers were at the same levels.

The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot

The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot


Each time, Griffin The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot recognized the cup containing the most juice, even when researchers crossed arms to mislead him.

“We first did some tests to see if he would pick the cup that contains the most, and if, when we pour them into new identical cups, he would be able to follow our hand movements. Said Ms. Pepperberg. afterward, we showed him which container had the most and which had the least, and we poured the juice into containers that look like the same but which are not. The idea is that if he follows our movements, Griffin The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot can remember which cut has the most and will not be fooled. “


The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot

The Gray of Gabon: a smart parrot


For Irene Pepperberg and Francesca Cornero, these tests are a way to explore the intelligence of birds to better understand the roots of the human intellect.

In their environment, birds will need to know that the change in appearance does not affect the amount: for example, a crushed fruit has the same nutritional value as an uncrushed fruit says Irene Pepperberg. “300 million years of evolution separate us from birds, and their brains are organized differently from ours … but obviously this type of knowledge is important in terms of evolution because they have it.

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