Polly Want to Be a Hacker?

Animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg is working to bring her feathered friends into the digital age.

Wild parrots are social birds, so it's natural that when pet parrots are left alone all day, they can become downright neurotic-screaming, biting, plucking their own feathers. Fortunately, Irene Pepperberg, research associate professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, is working on a solution to the problem of bird boredom.

For more than two decades, Pepperberg has studied the cognitive abilities of African gray parrots, confirming that they are much more than mere mimics. (One of her birds, Alex, can recognize numbers, identify objects, and understand concepts such as "same" and "different.") Now Pepperberg and her team are developing parrot-friendly computer hardware and software. InterPet Explorer features a "smart" perch equipped with a controller that the bird can manipulate with its beak, a 17-inch LCD screen, and speakers. Alex and another gray named Wart can use the controller to select Internet radio stations. Pepperberg says they favor either classical music or "anything with a good beat." They can also access still images or videos on the monitor. Pepperberg once observed Wart trying to pull a picture of a tennis ball off the screen.

Pepperberg's team is also developing two parrot-training programs: BirdSitter, which trains parrots to keep their chatter at an acceptable decibel level; and PollyGlot Computer. When the bird picks up a toy, PollyGlot plays a video clip about it and teaches the bird to say a corresponding word. The trick to designing a good parrot program, says Ben Resner, who helped Pepperberg develop these, "is to figure out activities they like to do, and virtualize them. We're not trying to give them e-mail; we're trying to give them what they want."