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ENRICHMENT THROUGH LEARNING
Jennifer Cunha, J.D.
Parrot Kindergarten, Inc.
BIO: Jennifer Cunha is an attorney who formerly taught inner-city children how to read. With
that experience, she began teaching her cockatoos phonics and reading skills in 2016. Her parrots
demonstrate mastery of grapheme-phoneme correspondence (reading words) and semantic
processing (vocabulary development), three of the tasks required for reading. Jennifer
collaborated with several university researchers to investigate parrots’ choice use with symbols,
grapheme-phoneme correspondence, and semantic processing skills, and the research on these
projects has been submitted for peer review and publication. Jennifer is co-owner of Parrot
Kindergarten, a company focusing on enhanced “kindergarten-style” enrichment and
communication training for parrot caregivers.
Research demonstrates that parrots are capable of high-level cognitive processing, including
inference-by-exclusion, counting, music preference, symbol use, and abstract concept
processing. Yet captive parrots also have high levels of stereotypy. Researchers have suggested
that enhanced enrichment can include non-traditional learning opportunities with varied learning,
motor, attentional and sensory components by way of cognitive challenges that increase in
difficulty upon mastery of tasks—as may be demanded in wild settings.
While husbandry training remains an essential practice for avian care and welfare, here we
explore the use of a variety of cognitive learning enrichment through “kindergarten concept”
training as a way to challenge and engage captive parrots through those motor, attentional,
sensory, and memory components. Non-traditional enhanced enrichment opportunities may be a
resource in addressing the ongoing cognitive enrichment needs of captive parrots and decrease
levels of stereotypy.
Research demonstrates that parrots are capable of high-level cognitive processing, including
inference-by-exclusion, (O’Hara, Auersperg, Bugnyar, & Huber, 2015; similar to African greys,
e.g., Pepperberg, Koepke, Livingston, Girard, & Hartsfield, 2013; Mikolasch, Kotrschal, &
Schloegl, 2011) counting, music preference, symbol use, and abstract concept processing. While
research on non-human primates spans over a century, comparative research into avian cognition
is much more recent.
Yet replications of non-human primate studies conducted on certain corvids and parrots yield
striking results. Güntürkün, Ströckens, Scarf and Colombo (2017) compared the performance of
primates, corvids and pigeons across a variety of tasks including short-term memory, object
permanence, abstract numerical competence, and orthographic processing and discovered that
pigeons and corvids demonstrated similarly high levels of performance when compared to non-
Likewise, Goffin’s cockatoos, African greys, and certain corvids have out-performed seven-to-
ten year old children and even adult gorillas on some complex cognitive tests such as reasoning,
memory, and mental manipulation tasks (Habl & Auersperg, 2017; Pepperberg, Gray, Lesser, &
Hartsfield, 2017; Pepperberg, Gray, Mody, Cornero, & Carey, 2019; Pepperberg & Pailin, 2017).
In this paper I review some of the cognitive capabilities of birds, provide a case study of a Helen
Dishaw and Matilda, a cockatoo, who engaged in cognitive learning enrichment and I will also
provide topic ideas for enhanced enrichment training for birds.
Stereotypy and Enrichment
Perhaps due to their intelligence, captive birds often display stereotypic behavior. Stereotypies
are abnormal repetitive, unvarying, and apparently functionless behaviors that are often
performed by captive and domesticated animals housed in barren environments (Meehan,
Garner, & Mench, 2004). They are believed to be in response to life in a captive environment. In
birds, stereotypies include a variety of oral and locomotive stereotypies including feather-
destruction (“FDB”), pacing, and hanging on cage bars.
Stereotypy rates in parrots are reported as high as 42% in cockatoos and 40% in African greys
(Jayson, Williams, & Wood, 2014) and it is also seen in other parrot species. Some research has
suggested a relationship between lack of enrichment and stereotypy (Garner, Meehan, Famula, &
Mench, 2006). For example, locomotive stereotypy (i.e., route-tracing and cage-hanging) may be
due to lack of space and physical complexity and oral stereotypy may be related to lack of
Orange-wing Amazon parrots raised in a barren environment had much higher rates of
stereotypy than those raised with locomotion- and foraging-based enrichment environments.
(Meehan, Garner, Mench, 2004.) Once the barren-environment raised parrots were relocated to
enriched environments, their rates of stereotypy decreased.
Contemporary researchers have suggested a need for higher levels of cognitive enrichment for
captive animals, beyond traditional methods of environment. Enrichment is traditionally
comprised of foraging opportunities, toys, variety in diet, destructible materials, and sensory
stimulation (such as the radio or television). While they may elicit “natural behaviors,” notably,
contemporary researchers suggest that these yet may not adequately provide mental stimulation
with varied learning, motor, attentional and sensory components by way of cognitive challenges
that increase in difficulty upon mastery of tasks—as may be demanded in wild settings (Bennett,
Bailoo, Dutton, Michel, & Pierre, 2018).
These researchers argue that enhanced enrichment using non-traditional modalities including
complex toys, puzzles, and even technology including learning games on computers could
additionally be utilized meet the cognitive needs of captive animals. Here we additionally
suggest that cognitive learning enrichment (“CLE”) training such as math, letters and phonics,
colors, shapes, “family” games, books, and crafts is a simple yet rich and diverse modality for
cognitive stimulation that builds in complexity as tasks are mastered.
CLE concept training methods are also simple, making them accessible to trainers at every level
A case study on two cockatoos with a history of FDB demonstrated that twenty minutes of
behavior training five days per week significantly reduced their incidence of oral stereotypy.
Anecdotally, participants in our enhanced enrichment projects and research have reduced and
sometimes extinguished rates of FDB. One bird that was mutilating for seven years stopped
mutilating after CLE. Our participants also report lower rates of fear responses to novel stimuli.
Abstract Learning and Symbol Use
Cognitive learning enrichment lessons are comprised of simple abstract learning sessions,
sensory enrichment, motor skill development, and the use of symbols, such as “yes” and “no.”
Abstract learning is the ability to understand ideas or qualities as opposed to actual physical
objects or people (Zentall., Wasserman, & Urcuioli, 2014). Many non-human animals
demonstrate the ability to engage in abstract learning processes, such as size and difference
comparisons and even associative learning, understanding that concepts are interchangeable with
one another by virtue of a common association with an outcome or another object.
Symbol use has been used by animals to express abstract concepts similar to children’s lessons.
Notably, Dr. Pepperberg’s research with Alex, the African grey parrot, demonstrated his fluency
in comparing number symbols with physical quantities, stating that the number 5 was larger than
a quantity of four objects (Pepperberg, 2006).
Capuchin monkeys and African greys have demonstrated the ability to engage in symbolic
reasoning (Addessi, Mancini, Crescimbene et. al, 2008). Different colored tokens were
associated with certain foods, and the monkeys and parrots interchangeably exchanged correct
tokens for their preferred foods. African greys have been observed to give food tokens to other
African greys that couldn’t access the tokens so that they could also get reinforcers (Brucks &
von Bayern, 2020).
CLE can also utilize symbol use in captive birds as a learning modality.
Research demonstrates that enhancing the degree of control an animal has over their
environment can lead to beneficial effects on their behavior (Brent & Weaver, 1996; Honess &
Marin, 2006; Line, Clarke, Markowitz & Ellman, 1990). Some have argued that control is a vital
part of psychological wellbeing and even that an animal’s own choice should be a determinant
for what enrichment is provided (Washburn, 2015).
Symbol use has also been used by animals to communicate choice and preference. Horses have
been trained to touch symbols to make requests for blankets during cold temperatures and for
removal of blankets during warm temperatures (Mejdell, Buvik, Jørgensen, & Bøe, 2016). Our
research indicates that parrots have the ability to use abstract symbols to communicate “yes” and
“no” regarding the presence or absence of a matching set of cards (Cunha, Rhoads & Niemann,
manuscript in preparation).
Theoretically, just as horses used symbols to request the application or removal of blankets, birds
may be capable of expressing preference between two proffered objects through choice training.
As described in the case study below, while choice is possible within the limited resources
available to caregivers and facilities through a birds option to engage or disengage, a vehicle for
communication by way of yes/no objects and simple vocabulary training can increase the variety
of choice to captive parrots and provide a framework for CLE as well.
LEARNING ENRICHMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Lesson Setup and Frequency
I offer cognitive learning enrichment lessons three-to-five times per week to our parrots.
Sessions can range from ten minutes to forty minutes, depending on the bird’s interest and my
For novel and complex CLE, the birds are given one-on-one instruction. The lessons are divided
into three parts: an introduction, a challenging middle, and a fun finishing topic, each
approximately three to six minutes long—or much longer, if the bird asks to continue. The bird
chooses the topics for each segment through preference discrimination.
The introduction to the lesson often covers recently pre-learned topics as a warm-up and to build
momentum, for example, a review of colors or a simple matching game. The middle portion of
the lesson may include new vocabulary, a math lesson, phonics, or music. The final portion of
the lesson often generalizes the new topic to relevant environmental application or is another fun
activity the bird picks.
At all times, birds are allowed to “opt out” of lessons, either by behaviorally disengaging,
walking, or flying away.
When there is limited time availability, I use CLEs such as children’s books and art (as described
below) and multiple birds participate simultaneously. This allows them the opportunity for new
sensory experiences and challenging cognitive tasks with high rates of reinforcement while
allowing multiple birds to engage in CLE within the allotted time budget.
Simple Vocabulary Development
Parrots evidence the capacity for a wide base of vocabulary development. The bird with the
largest speaking vocabulary was a budgie, who spoke over 1,700 words and is recorded in the
Guinness Book of World Records. Alex the African Grey appeared to speak over 200 words in
context, including colors, numbers, shapes, and materials (Pepperberg, 1987).
As an enrichment exercise, birds can be trained on simple vocabulary such as colors, shapes, and
numbers. Through the use of media, pictures, and vocabulary lessons, they can also be
introduced to concepts such as weather, body parts, locations and objects, names of people and
animals in their environments, other types of animals, and even cultural themes (i.e., Santa or the
Children’s books provide an almost unlimited array of enrichment opportunities with colorful
pictures and simple stories. Books can also be borrowed for free from the library. Birds may be
target trained to find specific, recurring pictures throughout the book (i.e., a rabbit or a pumpkin)
and given treats each time they touch the cued image.
Book enrichment can also be used with several birds simultaneously by asking the birds one at a
time to pick the specific target picture, and then moving to the next page. This enrichment
exercises allows birds to hear new vocabulary, see an assortment of pictures, and search for
pictures on pages while getting a high ratio of reinforcers.
Like books, options for simple children’s crafts abound. Birds can be asked to select between
two decorative craft components, and after the selection, trained to touch their preference of a
location on the craft to attach the decoration. This activity can draw from cultural influences (i.e.,
holidays) or be topical (i.e., shapes, colors, or animals) and has a high rate of reinforcement
along with cognitive challenges, preference practice, social enrichment, and sensory experiences.
Many animals, including pigeons, African grey parrots, dolphins, rats, sea lions and non-human
primates, have demonstrated the ability to engage in abstract thinking through the match-to-
sample (MTS) paradigm (Lind, Enquist, & Ghirlanda, 2014).
Many family games can be adapted for bird and human participation utilizing MTS training as a
base, including Go Fish! and Bingo. The card game, War, is a larger/smaller quantity
discrimination and the “Which Hand?” guessing game invites birds to guess which hand the treat
is located. From fish and colors to holidays, many different card decks can be rotated for the
games, allowing a variety of sensory experiences. Additionally, all of these games provide a
variety of options for cognitive enrichment with a high rate of reinforcement from the same
Math & Quantity Discrimination
Alex, an African gray parrot (Psittacus erithacus) who was trained to vocalize labels for a variety
of objects (Pepperberg, 1981), demonstrated a variety of skills not previously exhibited by
nonhuman primates, including, e.g., counting to eight and inferring the cardinality of 7 and 8
from their order in a number line (Pepperberg & Carey, 2012). He also demonstrated knowledge
of the concept of “zero” —something that took humans several millennia as a species to acquire
and is relatively late-developed in human children (Wellman & Miller, 1986).
Counting and quantity discrimination training in birds can be a springboard for cognitive
enrichment with generalization. Birds can be trained to recognize quantity discriminations (more
/ less) and count, and from that basis, trainers can incorporate math into other lessons, most
especially vocabulary. For instance, when learning colors, a trainer can ask the bird, “How many
are yellow?” During holidays we count seasonal themes. For example, at Halloween my birds
count spider, and bat cut-outs and count the number of pumpkins on pages in children’s books.
Letters and Phonics
Baboons, sea lions, and pigeons have successfully mastered orthographic processing, acquiring
the ability to detect strings of letters and English words from non-English words (Grainger et al.,
2012; Scarf et al., 2016). Initial research into phonics skills in an umbrella cockatoo suggests that
parrots may also have the ability to learn sound-text correspondence (Cunha, Clubb & Perry,
under review), and research on a Goffin’s cockatoo has suggested the ability to learn new
vocabulary through reading (Cunha & Rhoads, manuscript in preparation).
If enhanced enrichment is the notion that birds are exposed to harder concepts as new skills are
mastered, phonics provides the most comprehensive scope of lessons. As sounds and letters are
learned, new ones are offered, and the combinations chained into sound-blending through words.
The complex cognitive task of reading may provide a basis for communication, independent and
social learning through books, and nearly unlimited learning concepts and resources.
African greys have been observed to demonstrate music preference and when provided choice,
even select their preferred music to play throughout the day.
We created index cards with different music symbols and used learning enrichment lessons to
associate the cards with certain genres of music, including classical, rock, and versions of calm
music such as guitar, piano, and new age. We also created an index card with a bird on it so the
birds could choose to listen to bird vocalizations.
For extra enrichment, the birds also explored sub-genres of classical music such as Baroque,
Romantic and Impressionist styles, each with composer and era associations.
Each day, one of the birds chooses the auditory enrichment and although not yet researched
formally, certain patterns have emerged as preferential genres (and even composers) which vary
COGNITIVE LEARNING ENRICHMENT IN PRACTICE
Helen Dishaw and Matilda
Helen Dishaw is Curator of Bird Programs at Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah and Vice
President of IAATE. Helen initially expressed interest in cognitive learning enrichment with
Matilda, a Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo who frequently disengaged from previously learned
traditional training activities.
Q: How do you feel about training Matilda with CLE?
I LOVE it. It has been surprising to me! Her capacity to learn the volume she is learning (and
complication level) is constantly surprising. Learning to discriminate colors and shapes, not
surprising really at all – I was 100% confident she would master that without much difficulty.
But some of the things we parlayed that into in our fun lessons has been interesting to watch her
We stick with things I can tangibly verify as right/wrong in her choices – discrimination, match-
to-sample – she’s either correct in her choice or she’s not and I can see it and a lot of it is just
discriminating and matching sounds/pictures/objects, none of which is out of the scope of belief
possible – but it’s the sheer volume of things she is remembering and learning to associate and
discriminate that is mind-blowing to me.
Q: What made you interested in CLE with Matilda?
A: Matilda is a quick learner, I’ve taught her a lot of “mechanical” behaviors for shows and or
private fun (such as recycling items, collecting money on donation box, flight retrieve, playing
Connect-4, stacking cups, putting shapes in puzzle box) and during sessions with her we’d
review and play with these mechanical learned behaviors.
But I noticed a waning of enthusiasm from her, not to anthropomorphize but almost like she was
“bored” with the basic behaviors she’d learned and ready for something more challenging.
Again, not to anthropomorphize, but to put it in terms anyone could understand it felt like she
had outgrown the behaviors – much like a child would outgrow games you play when your five
years old – you wouldn’t play Candyland with your teenager and expect them to be as engaged
as they were when they were five. I saw the cognitive lessons you were doing with your parrots
and thought it might be something worth trying with her – just for fun – just to see what she’d
The results of it have been surprising to me (and continue to be).
Q: Could you describe her body language toward training topics prior to CLE?
A: Matilda would do a couple of reps of mechanical behaviors, but then disengage – wander
away or just refuse. She knew what was being asked of her but wasn’t motivated to do it.
Q: How did you feel about Matilda’s training sessions her prior to CLE?
A: They were making me a little sad and frustrated, I felt as though I were failing to meet her
needs in some way. Seeing her seem “bored” with things she’d previously appeared to “enjoy” (I
use these words in “” because, of course, we cannot know what they are feeling, but this was the
impression I got based on her body language and enthusiasm levels) motivated me to find
something new to try with her.
Q: Could you describe the manner in which she expressed “preference” or choice over her
training topics prior to CLE?
A: Literally just whether or not she would engage or do what was being asked. She does not have
to do anything she doesn’t choose to do (never has). We ask, and she has a choice to participate
or not through her behavior and we’re respectful of her choices at all times. But she didn’t really
have a way to choose which thing we were going to ask her to do, just whether or not she did it
when asked (if that makes sense).
Q: How often do you train CLE?
A: Every day, with very little exception.
Q: Could you describe the manner in which Matilda expresses preference or choice over
her CLE topics?
I offer her choices of two different topics – and she chooses one or the other, I’ll then offer her
the choice of that one and a third topic option, and let her choose one or the other. I’ll do that a
few times to narrow down which topic I really feel she is leaning towards. I also taught her
yes/no (using colored targets and words) to confirm choices.
So, for example, I’ll give her a choice between topics “colors” and “shapes” – if she chooses
“shapes,” I’ll then ask her to confirm that with yes/no targets, if she confirms yes – I’ll offer her
“shapes” and “words” – if she chooses “shapes” again, we’ll confirm with yes/no targets – and
assuming yes – we work with shapes, as I feel that’s enough indication for me of her preference
for that day.
Q: What topics does Matilda most often select?
A: It changes. She went through a phase of choosing shapes over anything – she really did seem
to enjoy learning shapes. But it’s not always predictable what she chooses, and a lot of the time
now it will be the newest topic we’ve been playing with.
Q: Has the length of her training changed from before CLE? If yes, in what way?
A: Yes, she is engaged for longer, for the most part. Some days she doesn’t want to do it at all,
and that’s fine, but that is not often. Maybe because there is so much variation in what we can
do, so it’s more stimulating and different each day.
Q: Could you describe her behavior/orientation toward CLE?
A: We have a station she comes to for her CLE session – when she sees me coming with my
“props” – she is on the station before I can get there and eager to start – I see that as a clear
demonstration of enthusiasm. In fact, I found if I take too long setting up my lesson materials,
she paces back and forth, impatient to get going – so I started prepping materials out of her view
so I could come to her prepared to jump right in so she’s not waiting on me.
Q: What have been your favorite lessons?
A: Tough one. I really loved teaching her color and shape discrimination when we were doing
that. Most especially colors, because as she learned the colors, we’d take it outside when doing
public encounters at my facility and find that color while out and about – which I really felt was
fun – if we were focused on learning red – I’d ask her to find and touch red flowers, red leaves,
red signs, etc. – and that was a lot of fun. We did a whole series of lessons around food – some
she liked, some she didn’t – and discriminating food items by name (vocal and written) and that
was fun. Right now, she is learning to discriminate photos of the birds she lives with and around,
as well as their written names, and matching those – this is my favorite at the moment. I guess
that wasn’t a very good answer, I think I enjoy whatever the newest thing is that we’re doing – as
long as I can see she is enthusiastic about it and seems to be learning.
Q: What are some of the unexpected challenges?
A: Time commitment really is the only one. The further you go with it, the more prep time is
necessary (I imagine like a teacher having to prepare lessons for a class), so there is an
investment of time necessary (I do a lot of mine at home the night before). As opposed to other
forms of enrichment that might just take a few minutes to make a toy or a foraging opportunity –
CLE requires thinking about what you are going to work on, creating the props and gather
supplies, lesson planning on a day-to-day basis. But, it has been more than worth it.
Q: If you could tell others just a few things about cognitive learning enrichment, what
would they be?
A: It’s worth trying. Even if you are skeptical that it’s possible for birds to learn some of these
things, it’s fun to play with, it helps you become a better teacher, it is relationship building, it is
engagement for the bird, it is empowering for the bird, and it’s surprising! There really isn’t a
downside to it… and it’s fun.
Captive parrots are highly cognitive animals. They also exhibit an increased incidence of
stereotypic behaviors, thought to be related, at least in part, to lack of enrichment opportunities.
Researchers believe that enrichment can be comprised of “non-traditional” methods that more
fully utilize sensory, motor, learning, and memory skill capacity in animals by way of challenges
that increase in difficulty over time and mastery.
Cognitive learning enrichment using kindergarten concepts with two-choice discrimination
includes a rich variety of topics that can be taught and integrated together. This provides a
simple-to-teach framework with complex lesson resources in order to meet the cognitive needs
of captive birds.
Perhaps because of social engagement, mental challenges, and novel learning stimuli, birds who
participate in cognitive learning enrichment appear to engage in training sessions for longer
duration and express behaviors (vocalizations, movement) that indicate a preference to
participate in learning. Birds also utilize choice throughout the lesson to control the pace and
topics of their learning.
Additionally, the training modality of two-choice discrimination is simple and trainers and
owners express enjoyment and satisfaction with the training process.
It has been our observation that some participant birds have reduced or eliminated altogether
their stereotypic behaviors, although further research is needed.
Finally, cognitive learning enrichment can be a mechanism for providing challenges in
increasing difficulty and utilizing birds’ learning, memory, and motor skills in a meaningful way
to enrich their lives in captive settings.
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