Parrot understands concept of zero

A Brandeis University researcher has shown that an African grey parrot with a walnut-sized brain understands a numerical concept akin to zero – an abstract notion that humans don’t typically understand until age three or four, and that can significantly challenge learning-disabled children.

Strikingly, Alex, the 28-year-old parrot who lives in a Brandeis lab run by comparative psychologist and cognitive scientist Dr. Irene Pepperberg, spontaneously and correctly used the label “none” during a testing session of his counting skills to describe an absence of a numerical quantity on a tray. This discovery prompted a series of trials in which Alex consistently demonstrated the ability to identify zero quantity by saying the label “none.”

Dr. Pepperberg’s research findings, published in the current issue of The Journal of Comparative Psychology, add to a growing body of scientific evidence that the avian brain, though physically and organizationally somewhat different from the mammalian cortex, is capable of higher cognitive processing than previously thought. Chimpanzees and possibly squirrel monkeys show some understanding of the concept of zero, but Alex is the first bird to demonstrate an understanding of the absence of a numerical set, Dr. Pepperberg noted.

“It is doubtful that Alex’s achievement, or those of some other animals such as chimps, can be completely trained; rather, it seems likely that these skills are based on simpler cognitive abilities they need for survival, such as recognition of more versus less,” explained Dr. Pepperberg.

Alex had previously used the label “none” to describe an absence of similarity or difference between two objects, but he had never been taught the concept of zero quantity. “Alex has a zero-like concept; it’s not identical to ours but he repeatedly showed us that he understands an absence of quantity,” said Dr. Pepperberg.

Historically, the use of “zero” to label a null set has not always been obvious even in human cultures, which in many cases lacked a formal term for zero as recently as the late Middle Ages. The value of number research lies mainly in its ability to help determine the extent of animal cognition and animals’ potential for more complex capacities. To that end, Dr. Pepperberg’s studies on the avian brain are continuing with research into Alex’s ability to count, as well as add and subtract small quantities.

Yet significantly, Dr. Pepperberg’s research, which uses a training method called the model-rival technique, also holds promise for teaching autistic and other learning-disabled children who have difficulty learning language, numerical concepts and even empathy.

The model rival technique involves two trainers, one to give instructions, and one to model correct and incorrect responses and to act as the student’s rival for the trainer’s attention; the model and trainer also exchange roles so that the student sees that the process is fully interactive. The student, in this case, a middle-aged parrot, tries to reproduce the correct behavior. So far, results using this learning technique with small groups of autistic children, taught by Diane Sherman, PhD, in Monterey, CA, have been very promising, said Dr. Pepperberg.

“This kind of research is changing the way we think about birds and intelligence, but it also helps us break down barriers to learning in humans – and the importance of such strides cannot be underestimated,” said Dr. Pepperberg.

From Braneis University

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6 thoughts on “Parrot understands concept of zero”

  1. There is a condor locked up at the Sf Zoo not in Big Sur Ventana Wildlife Society where Craig Hohenberger brought back Condor! Leonardo de vinci painted Leda and the Swan Out of Doors for a REASON

    If we are going to have parrots in CAPTIVITY —
    or it is a CRIME against a BRAIN = a six year old human.
    Personally I wouldn’t want that blood on my lily white hands!
    These aren’t chickens, guys!
    Leigh Roth Certified Nurse midwife Ph.d
    –Mexico where there are hardly anymore parrots used to cover the ground with SCARLETTS …push them away to plant corn

  2. SUPERSMART Militaries in MEXICO, I am Leigh Roth, RN certified nursemidwife with master’s from COLUMBIA, BS UCSF, MA Cal state Hayward y Ph.d UCBerkeley epidemiology. I can speak scientifically after 56 years spent with parrots and 17 with Millitary Macaws here in Zihuatanejo Mexico. I am the only person since Mexico stopped the exportation of endangered parrots in early 1970’s to export a military — she was BLIND and “in danger of being extinquished every minute — published in Birdtalk, see zihuatanejo-rentals.com/rosie.htm Rosie has over a decade with her mate ‘Monkey’ at Twin Willows Aviary in association with BRIAN SPEER DMW (co-author MACAW text book); pronounced Rosie “the most well adapted macaw I have ever seen ”
    DMW Speer put Rosie to sleep to establish she had “sunken eye syndrome.”
    The investigation stopped when Speer wanted to send Rosie to Chicago vet to vet out her one optic nerve…
    Now having established my bona fides;
    I want to talk about another bird, Rocky seen on zihuatanejo-rentals.com/parrots.htm Monkey lived in total isolation and deprivation till age 15. It took me a year to convince owners to sell. Monkey needed sensory gratification so badly he almost rubbed me to death…So I went South and bought a box of baby Hertiz conures, which MUCH LARGER said MACAW adapted and FED! Please explain how he got his beak down their little necks? Is there a scientist who wants the photographs?
    Monkey and LALO a 27 year old egg laying (under the sink) were KIDNAPPED by evil woman see
    zihuatanejo-rentals.com/kidnap.htm email REBECCA PAYNE and tell her to return birds. Old woman is negligent macaws are dying in her’zoo’!
    P.S. Militaries guard the nest; they will emerge from bathroom and ATTACK intruders. They recognize people, shoes, their neighborhood, who is a parrot person FROM A BLOCK AWAY! Their intuition is as good as ours!
    Alex can count but my macaws have been taught to swim, escape surf, and they make noises under a waterfall no human will ever hear. They hold hands, they can walk two blocks from the seas up 50 step staircase to get home…three can accommodate in a taxi window maintain equilibrium at top speed over speed bumps from Zihuatanejo to Acapulco a four hour drive. They can dance and stomp their feet! They complain when I leave bathroom light on. They live up high on a balcony they live up in a jungle they live free!
    Leigh Roth– can someone get this to Pepperberg? I need somebody to take these birds I have a fatal illness! [email protected]

    • It you google my name, leigh roth, you will find posted my previous message, but the subtext is robert whitehead of zihuataenjo who has a directory and message board, where he has libelled me for years due to envy…so since this gets googled, let me speak about intelligence of macaws…they never forget a trauma although they may forgive you….they start out with a new food with the tiniest taste..maybe by the time they go for it their system has notified their brain okay to eat…pamela slurpped up a cup of yogurt while i was out of the room…took him 10 years to say his name, but he sure knows his house how to surf, kayak, walk up long stairs, ride a bike skateboard, stay in a taxi window, pose with every local and tourist who wants a photo…sleep with me…i love you pamela

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