Jennifer Cuhna is a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in psychology; she also served as a research assistant at the University of Florida in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory and spent many years teaching inner-city kids how to read. Those experiences gave her both the inquisitiveness and the expertise to work on a rather unconventional study – can parrots learn phonics just as human children do?
It all started with Ellie, her hand-raised Goffin’s Cockatoo, who came with a full set of behavioral challenges that ranged from nipping to property destruction to occasional screaming fits. Most often these behaviors in parrots stem from a lack of adequate stimulation, but Kunha was a highly interactive “bird mama,” rotating Ellie’s toys daily, providing multiple foraging opportunities, and ensuring she had at least four hours of out-of-cage playtime every day. In addition, she taught Ellie color discrimination, and, using foam numbers and conditioning techniques, she taught her to count the number of lemons she put on the coffee table. Ellie thrived on the input, and the more challenging her lesson, the calmer her behavior was that day – she was an eager student.
In August 2016, Ellie was being a brat – screaming, chasing another cockatoo, and throwing glasses on the floor until they broke. Cunha had bought a set of foam letters at Walmart and decided this was the perfect opportunity to test if her bird could grasp the idea of letters and corresponding sounds. She put an apple next to the letter A on a table and placed Ellie beside them, pointing and saying, “This is an apple. It is a word, and it begins with the letter A.” She used target training (having the bird touch a letter, picture, or word as a response to a prompt in exchange for a reward if she gets the answer right) to condition Ellie to the three different phonetic A sounds (the ones heard in cake, cat, and call) as she herself touched the A, as well as to the vocabulary word, “apple.”
Ellie immediately calmed down and focused, learning both pairings that night. The next day Cunha taught her B and ball, and then C and cup, adding one more letter and one vocabulary word each successive day. Every day she would also review all previously learned vocabulary and letter sounds. She used picture books to teach Ellie vocabulary, such as conditioning her to touch the picture of a fish in a children’s book to go along with the sounded-out word “fish;” for reinforcement, Cunha took her to the fish store to look at live fish, too. For E/elephant they watched YouTube videos, and, again, Ellie received treats for touching the images of elephants on the screen. In addition, she got her very own stuffed toy elephant.
Ellie’s accuracy rate was excellent, although Cunha admits she was not keeping exact records at that time. The bird worked on the exercises from 20 to 45 minutes at a time (a very long attention span for a bird), three to five days per week. Within two weeks she’d learned nine letters, including A, B, E, and L. With those four letters, Cunha could create two of Ellie’s already-existing vocabulary words: BALL and BELL, so she wrote the words on two flashcards and target trained her to touch each of them independently, as well as to discriminate between them. Then she held up the two words and asked Ellie to “Touch BELL.” Within ten minutes the bird could correctly identify both the words and the objects, discriminating between word/word and word/object upon presentation. Over the next few weeks weeks, Cunha also worked on blending the letter sounds into consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC/CVCC) words made up of her learned letters.
Next, Cunha wondered whether Ellie could blend phonetic sounds (technically, whether she could master grapheme-phoneme correspondence) to read larger words; she again target trained for vocabulary objects and wrote the words on flashcards. When she presented two cards at a time Ellie accurately selected 70% of the time on novel-impression vocabulary. It was important to avoid cuing – influencing Ellie’s choices with visual or gestural movements. Randomly, Cunha would look at the wrong card while speaking it so Ellie would learn that eye movements would not necessarily give a correct response.
Later work using “homemade blind conditions” with an assistant demonstrated that Ellie’s engagement and accuracy with less-challenging tasks tended to be lower, but over 59 simple reading tasks her performance was 66%, a score large enough to be “above chance.” (Under informal and blind conditions, Cunha’s five cockatoos’ accuracy rates were 75% across 385 cumulative tasks including consonant-vowel-consonant words, vocabulary, sentences, and emerging-literacy book reading.)
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Ellie’s emerging literacy was her mastery of the letter Y. That allowed Cunha to create “YES” and “NO” flashcards, and she began asking the bird questions such as “Do you want to play?” ”Do you want your ball?” “Do you like bananas?” She could even ask more complicated questions, such as “Do you want apples or pancakes?” Choice through literacy and communication based on conditioned vocabulary gave Ellie a voice in her own life. She could choose what she wanted to do or to eat or to play – or not. Emerging literacy, with the ability to discriminate between pictures and text or between words and sentences was a next logical step; Ellie performed 80 such word tasks with 70% accuracy.
In 2017, Cunha recognized that stringent research would be required for credibility. In addition to her own blind test designs, she teamed up with Susan Clubb, DVM, who specializes in avian medicine, and finally Lynn Perry, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Miami who researches how children learn words, to help strengthen the overall study design. As of winter 2018, Cunha’s Umbrella Cockatoo, Isabelle, has provided a data set made up of her reading 60 three-syllable words under blind conditions, including both uppercase and lowercase letters, and a journal article will be forthcoming. If birds can indeed be taught phonics and basic reading skills as it appears Cunha’s five parrots can do, just imagine what strides humans could make in child and adult literacy given the right conditions and a bit of effort.
Adapted from Cuhna, Jennifer. (Winter 2018.) “Can Parrots Learn to Read?” In the IAABC Journal. Retrieved from https://winter2018.iaabcjournal.org/2018/02/13/reading-parrots/?utm_source=2018+April+Phoenix+Landing+Newsletter&utm_campaign=April+2018&utm_medium=email