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Advanced Parrot Enrichment – a Bird-Controlled Computer Game and Robot!

Alex the Parrot with blocksFrom Budgies to Scarlet Macaws, parrots must be provided with interesting environments if they are to remain healthy, and their owners sane (bored parrots may scream, pluck their feathers, etc.).  Indeed, behavioral enrichment (basically, “keeping animals busy”) is now mandated for parrots by most reputable zoos.  Thousands of useful ideas and products help to serve this cause, but few have gone as far as a parrot computer game first conceived at New York’s Binghamton University.

A New Frontier in Pet Enrichment

Researchers studying animal communication came up with the idea for a game-based tool that might be used to explore parrot learning abilities.  The idea won first prize in a contest sponsored by a company that creates prototypes for inventors, and is now a reality.

The program is quite ambitious.  Several types of games with varying levels of difficulty are featured – parrots can make objects move, cause a song to be played, draw, participate in word games and move a ball so that it hits a food target.  The computer responds only to bird vocalizations, not to pecking or biting (no computer would last very long if parrots had to physically manipulate it!).

Depending upon the game in use, the computer generates audio and/or visual responses, and a wired-in robot wired dispenses treats when the parrot behaves appropriately.

Potential Risks and Benefits

One reviewer expressed fears that parrots might become addicted to the games (or to training for the Parrot World Computer Game Championships!), and that the computer might alienate birds from their owners, much as sometimes happens among people.  But the concept is far-sighted experiment, and I believe worthy of further investigation.  If all is arranged just so, it might even be possible for caged parrots to “work on the computer” while their owners are away.

I’ve observed Chimpanzees, Blue Jays, Crows and other creatures learn by watching others…certainly most parrots are up to the task of learning from a computer (far more so than I, as my long-suffering  co-workers at ThatPetPlace will attest!).

For the Non-Computer-Savvy Parrot or Owner

Don’t worry that your bird will “lag behind the others” if you’re not quite ready to provide it with a computer and robot…please see the article below for other ideas.

A number of parrot toys, especially those designed to encourage problem solving, are also very useful enrichment and learning tools.

Further Reading

Video: a parrot’s typical first reaction to computer games.

Enrichment: Adding Zest to Your Parrot’s Life

Original research paper describing the new computer game.


About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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