Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Parrots Adapt During Coronavirus Lockdown

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Life in the Time of Coronavirus-Update

African greys
Athena and Griffin celebrate their birthdays with some homemade banana bread.

I’m sure everyone is wondering how we are functioning since my last blog, and the answer is “very well, though not optimally.” As I mentioned last time, we are extremely fortunate that one of my research assistants, Diana, offered to take the birds. They are living in a beautiful, sunny third-floor bedroom, with views of budding trees and sky. They have settled in and are adjusting to the new schedule. My senior lab manager, one of my students, and I split shifts with Diana so that the birds have their full 11 hours day of human companionship.

We can’t do much research, because only one person is with them at any one time. We continue with some training, so that they don’t forget their labels and will continue to learn a behavior that we will need for an eventual experiment. At least when I am with them, they are rather “needy”—Griffin wants to spend almost all of my shift on my hand, preening and demanding tickles. Athena likes to sit on a perch within close reach so that she can also ask for “tick-tick.”

I’ve learned to type efficiently with one-hand (in between tickles) and can keep up with emails, though nothing else. Once or twice a shift, Griffin will pause from preening to say “Wanna nut”—his request to do some work. However, once I set up a task that I can do solo (e.g., training on bigger/smaller)—he usually decides to give random answers so that I’ll quit. Athena will occasionally identify the material of a toy that she doesn’t have in her cage so that I’ll give it to her to tear apart—but, again, only if she’s had enough tickles for the time being. As I said, it’s not optimal, but I’m thankful that all is well.

Birthdays Not The Same But Not Forgotten

One event that was definitely a casualty of the shutdown is the birds’ annual hatch-day celebration. Griffin’s hatch-day was on April 14th and Athena’s was on April 17th; we generally pick a day in-between to commemorate their entrances into the world. There are always some treats: Several years ago, my senior lab manager, Suzanne, found a recipe for a ‘banerry-corknut’ cake—an apple cake made with ground almonds and almond flour, some of the birds’ favorite foods—and it has become the traditional “yummy bread” (the label Alex used the first time he ever had cake).

We post pictures of the parrots as they chow down and whoever is in lab that day also gets to share the dessert. It is fun, even though normally it isn’t a huge party. This year, however, would have been of particular note—Grif turned 25!—and I was planning to get a separate sheet cake for the humans, put it in one of the common areas in the psych department at Harvard, and invite various folks who have helped us through the years to make sure they got a slice. I was also hoping to do some extra fundraising in honor of this milestone.

Instead, things were quite low-key. Suzanne made a simple banana bread for them (preparation of that banerry-corknut cake is extremely time consuming, and time is something in very short supply for us these days). She took some pictures of them enjoying their treat that my associate lab manager, Roni, by now should have posted on Facebook (one of them below). A research assistant in the lab—Christian Liu, who has been responsible for all our artwork for the past few years—is working on a card to post, too. The main message is to find something joyous in all the insanity that surrounds us!

Maybe in a few months we’ll be able to celebrate Griffin’s “home-coming day,” when we first brought him into the lab as a 7-1/2-week-old chick—in June, 1995. [NB—I do NOT support adopting unweaned babies—I was terrified at the prospect of handfeeding and weaning, but had expert help from a vet-tech friend and for a number of reasons had little choice in the matter. Athena, in contrast, was a fledged, weaned 4-month old on her arrival…] If so, it will also be a very exciting celebration of a return to normal life!

You can help Dr. Pepperberg continue the groundbreaking parrot research she began more than 30 years with Alex, the African grey parrot that won admirers from around the world with his cognitive abilities. If you shop online through sites such as, you can designate the Alex Foundation to receive a percentage of your final sales, or register with the Alex Foundation at and a percentage of sales from companies associated with iGive will go to the foundation. The Alex Foundation also has a “Donate” button linked to PayPal. Visit and click on the “Support Us” link for more information.

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