Talk To The Animals

3 minutes

(male narrator) This is Griffin, an African grey parrot.

(female) What matter? Wood. Good parrot.

(narrator) When Griffin talks, does he mimic sounds or consciously make words? What matter is this? Wool. Good birdie.

(narrator) Comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg believes African greys like Griffin know what they're talking about. They understand things like colors, shapes, number concepts, and concepts of bigger, smaller, same, and different. Things we never felt an animal could do, these birds are showing it's possible. What color figure? Good boy.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, Pepperberg studies the cognitive and communicative abilities in African greys. You like your yellow corn.

(narrator) She says the birds have social skills of a two-year-old and the intelligence of a five-year-old. What matter? Paper. Good birdie.

(narrator) Talking with birds means simplifying language down to motherese. Instead of asking what something's made of, she'll ask... What matter? What matter? Cork. Good parrot.

(narrator) Pepperberg studies Griffin's ability to identify partially obscured shapes. In the wild, we expect birds to have that ability, because seeing part of a predator, you want to respond like it's an entire predator. What shape? What shape rose? That's right. How many corners? How many corners rose? How many? Four. Good birdie.

(narrator) When testing, she's cautious, making she doesn't send subtle cues to the bird. We have controlled for that so many times. We have different people training versus people testing. What color is smaller? Orange is right. Good boy.

(narrator) Pepperberg says her work talking with birds has benefits for humans.

(Pepperberg) We've used these techniques with autistic children to help learn speech, learn communication skills. And they do learn. What shape?

(narrator) In this lab, the term "birdbrain" won't ruffle anyone's feathers. For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.


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Most pet owners talk to their animals at one time or another, and some do every day. But, how much do pets actually understand? Is their perception anything like our own? These are the questions that fascinate Irene Pepperberg and she’s looking for answers from the animals themselves, specifically – African Grey Parrots. The Harvard psychology professor is a bit like the character Dr. Doolittle because she’s been talking to parrots for decades. With help from the National Science Foundation, she’s researching how much the birds understand about shapes, numbers, and colors. Her next phase of research involves how the parrots detect optical illusions, and whether they perceive them the way humans do. Her research will also reveal more about how a bird’s vision works.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

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