Ripley the Parrot

Ripley is an eleven-year-old Congo African grey parrot whose hobbies primarily include television, singing, property destruction, and screaming.

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Parrots & Language

Despite popular opinion, many species of parrots can learn to recognize language and reproduce it meaningfully. African greys in particular are well-known for their linguistic intelligence and their ability to imitate human speech.

Ripley can use about 130 words and atomic phrases in their correct context--that is, he appears to know what they mean. He has also invented a couple of new words that he uses consistently.

Click here to see a list of Ripley's vocabulary

joodle: a combination of "juice" and "noodle," which he uses to mean "yogurt."

candle: a combination of "candy" and "noodle," which he uses to mean "a noodle/bread with sauce."

clease: a rarely used contraction of "clean" and "please."

Other African greys have been shown to combine words this way, such as Alex the parrot's combination of "banana" and "cherry" to form the new word "banerry," which he used to describe apples.

Games for Birds

In 2010, we set up a simple joystick inside Ripley's cage to see if he enjoyed playing video games. He appeared to have at least some understanding that his joystick movements related to the changes on-screen, and often responded by shouting at the monitor. He also devised some creative ways of interacting with the joystick.

The inspiration behind Ripley's gaming setup was the MIT Media Laboratory's InterPet Explorer, a hardware and software platform designed especially for parrots. We chose games and activities with no particular objective in mind other than entertaining our bird. The games Ripley played most often were The Endless Forest by Tale of Tales and the Jackson Pollock painting applet.

Here are the pictures Ripley made with the Jackson Pollock applet. Each of these took him about an hour of intermittent work, usually in bursts of 30 seconds to a minute. Whether any intention lies behind his pictures only Ripley knows, but he did pay close attention to the screen and on more than one occasion asked, "what color?"

Ripley also enjoyed controlling an avatar in the sandbox environment of The Endless Forest. A short video of him playing the game can be found here, and on his old TEF community page.

Click here to see a video of Ripley.

We also tried creating a custom wireless arcade cabinet for him, but to our disappointment he seriously preferred the cheap 2-button joystick. We may try a similar joystick setup in the future, as he still seems very interested in the joystick as an object.

In April of 2018, we set up a sturdy acrylic frame to house an old ASUS tablet that we mounted on the door of Ripley's cage. Since then, he has enjoyed playing with various touchscreen apps, using his beak and tongue. We're hoping that as he becomes more comfortable with the tablet, we'll be able to introduce more complex and interactive games to him.

Here's is the Javascript app that Tev wrote for Ripley. It's similar to the Jackson Pollock app.

Related Parrot Links

Congo African Grey Parrot: The entry on Wikipedia.

The Alex Foundation: The researchers behind Alex and friends.

The Rational Parrot: Insight on parrot behavior and care.

California Bird Nerds: Our favorite online bird toy supplier. Home of the Jackson Pollock app.

The Endless Forest: The free online game by Tale of Tales.