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  Entertaining Parrots

Photo of two birds
  Some 200 birds find the care they need at Foster Parrots, Ltd.

When SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN FRONTIERS first met Alex the African Grey parrot in 1992, he could already correctly name and distinguish between different colors, sizes, objects and materials. In "Entertaining Parrots," Alan catches up with Alex and psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who has been working with Alex for the last 23 years.

Now a visiting professor at MIT's famed Media Lab, Pepperberg brought in Alex and two younger parrots called Wart and Griffin to teach the engineers to train intelligent robotic systems the same way Pepperberg trains her birds. But once there, Pepperberg saw that technology had much to offer parrots in return.

Photo of Alan, Irene Pepperberg and Alex
Right again! Alan is amazed by Alex the parrot, trained by Irene Pepperberg.

As she and Alan see first hand at a parrot rescue and adoption center, these brilliant birds require lots of attention and mental stimulation to remain happy and healthy, a task many parrot owners find they are not up to. So Pepperberg has begun some "pet projects" of her own, using technology to build games and toys that can keep bored parrots entertained throughout the day. One of Pepperberg's prototypes is a nut dispenser the parrots control with a large, beak-friendly lever. The birds must learn to "read" a variety of arrows in order to manipulate the lever and get the nut. She has also devised "InterPet Explorer," a web browser software for birds that allows lonesome parrots to call up comforting pictures and audio of their owners, or even other parrots.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
For the Birds

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