After teaching inner-city children to read, Jennifer Cunha took this experience and began teaching her cockatoo phonics and reading skills using Tablets. During this experience, she has been interested in their behaviour, asking questions like how parrots can use communication boards and what they would use tablets for? Digging into this further, we interviewed her about her work. 

Ellie, a Goffin’s Cockatoo, using her tablet to draw. Photo: Jennifer Cunha.
Jennifer Cunha with Ellie. Photo: Jennifer Cunha.

How did you get into using tablets and communication boards with birds?

Three cockatoos live with me in my home. One of them, in particular, Ellie (a Goffin’s cockatoo), had a lot of behaviour challenges such as screaming, biting, and chasing the other birds, seemingly due to her intelligence and lack of mentally stimulating activities. A few years ago, I began teaching her concept-training tasks, such as discriminating letters, shapes, and other everyday objects/activity vocabulary to mentally challenge her. Her behaviour improved quite a bit, and she seemed so much calmer. The tablet seemed full of possibilities for learning, games, puzzles – and eventually, we discovered the CommBoard, too. The CommBoard is an Augmentative Alternative Communication device developed for nonverbal humans, but we adapted the pictures and menu items to objects and activities within the birds’ daily experiences. It’s been so neat to watch them not only learn how to use it for communication – but own the communication too. They ring a bell to ask to use it and then request food/beverage items (like apples or a bowl of water), activities such as tablet app games, and even use it to ask to interact with other people’s household members. 

Before using tablets, I read in your paper that you taught your Goffin cockatoo to initially match words to real-world objects such as pipe cleaners and water. How and why did you do this process? 

Before we began using the tablet and back when we were working on many general concept training skills, I taught Ellie to communicate “yes” and “no” with green and red symbols. I chose these colours as they are easy to remember that green means “go” and red means “stop.” Hence – yes and no. Bonus! The training protocol essentially comprised a few steps: 1) teaching Ellie to associate the green object with the word “yes” and the red one with the word “no”; 2) teaching her two vocabulary words through associations between the spoken word and the object itself – such as “treat” and “water”; 3) and then asking her “Do you want a treat?” and teaching her that touching the “yes” object meant she received the thing offered, touching the “no” object meant the object offered was withdrawn. In this way, she learned to touch “yes” when I said, “Do you want a treat?” She always wants a treat! And she learned to touch “no” when I said, “Do you want some water?” (when she was satiated). After she was pretty accurate in choosing yes for treat and no for water, we generalized to other things we knew she wanted or didn’t want. She’d tell us “Yes,” she wanted nuts and apples, and told us “No,” she didn’t want, for instance, broccoli or a spoon.

What type of tablet do you use and why? 

Early in the birds’ learning, I bought a generic, inexpensive tablet. Mainly because I was concerned the cockatoos might break it and was unsure it would work with the birds. I don’t remember the brand or style, but it didn’t respond efficiently to their attempts to touch the screen, and it was also very slow. I tried to create a “communication board” using PowerPoint back then. However, it was clunky – and the birds grew frustrated and walked away from the tablet. I abandoned tablet projects for a few years until my partner suggested the Samsung Galaxy Tab A. I had to persuade the birds with favourite treats first to try again because the former tablet had been frustrating. However, soon they discovered it was much easier to “pressure touch” as it responds well to their beak presses.

If other people were looking at training their birds for tablets, what advice would you give? 

My top suggestion is to get a tablet with a high degree of screen sensitivity and a quick response rate. One of the biggest challenges with teaching birds to interact with tablets is reducing frustration. Frustration tolerance can be trained in parrots, but getting a good tablet goes a long way and makes it so enjoyable for everyone! 

How can people avoid frustration when getting their birds to use tablets? 

Frustration mitigation is a BIG part of tablet training in our Parrot Kindergarten program! I have two methods for helping reduce frustration opportunities. First, I use a two-value reinforcement system. The birds get “big treats” (their favourite food – pine nuts!) for target behaviour and “little treats” (a sunflower seed) for approximations when they are trying, but not quite there. This method is especially great for birds that are just learning to interact with tablets or when they are learning new tablet games. The second way I reduce frustration as the birds work on sometimes even very difficult tablet tasks is to ensure they never have more than 2 or 3 unsuccessful task attempts without an opportunity for a “little job” and a guaranteed treat.

For example, Ellie seems to enjoy trying to write letters. She’s pretty good at a handful of them, such as l, o, c, n, m, p, and s. The lowercase ‘e’ is a particularly difficult one, however. The small ‘e’ requires side-to-side movement, then an up loop that drops back down and over. Each of those movements is a separate motor skill task she works on, and sometimes she works on letters for up to 40 and 50 minutes in a session. When Ellie is working on ‘e’, I tell her “side to side, then up!” which is basically two combined movements. If she unsuccessfully attempts that movement twice in a row, I’ll ask her to touch my hand (a simple job with a guaranteed treat!). She gets a little break – and a snack – and then I decide whether to pull back to a simpler step or keep going at the harder movement. 

Ellie using the tablet to select things. Photo: Jennifer Cunha.
Ellie writing. Photo: Jennifer Cunha.

I noticed you used symbols for the bird to touch on the tablet. How did you pick these symbols, and how easy was it for Ellie to understand their meaning? 

Symbolic representation is the concept that something stands in for something else – for us, that can be words (“treat” or “CommBoard”), but it’s also primarily visual, in the sense of pictures or letters. Written symbols form much of the basis for my communication with Ellie. However, the basis for this training I began teaching her colours. I had heard that cockatoos were like young children – so I figured I should teach her colours, shapes, and numbers! We taught her to associate words with objects starting with colours. Once she was proficient at making associations that way (and being quizzed on them), we generalized that method to new symbols. For example, she learned to touch a card with a black-and-white picture cartoon of people dancing while playing rock music. Then she learned to associate a card picture of Beethoven with classical music. We quizzed her to see if she could select the card associated with the kind of music we played (and typically, yes! with around 70-80% accuracy). Then we taught her to pick what she wanted to listen to by asking, “Which is favourite?” Whichever card she picked, we turned on. In this way, she’s learned rock, guitar, piano, and classical music and is quite opinionated about what tunes we play! We also added these to her CommBoard, so she can ring her bell and ask to listen to specific music genres.

Do you think birds will use tablets alone, or should humans be part of the process? 

This is an excellent question and one that is quite open for discovery! I understand that in most research labs with ‘enculturated’ parrots (parrots who have been language trained and frequently interact with humans), nobody has yet been able to get the parrots to test on a computer by themselves. The birds so far need the presence of a human. In the context of my work, my cockatoo Isabelle won’t interact with the tablet unless I am within a short distance from her giving her treats. Ellie plays games on her tablet for 5-15 minutes while I am in and out, for instance, cleaning, gardening, or cooking. Now she rings a bell when she has finished her picture or her puzzle (because she’s done such a great job!), and I bring her a little treat. So far, none of my birds (nor the ones in our program) is willing to work completely independently on a tablet. That said, if tablets delivered treats, they might be much more interested in solo work! 

Conceivably parrots could also learn to enjoy games and puzzles independently if an external reinforcing mechanism were in place. I also think it’s possible that parrots can learn to interact with tablets for the intrinsic reinforcement of cognitive challenge – but, of course, to my knowledge, that hasn’t been discovered yet, either.

What do you have planned for the future for you and Ellie? 

Ellie seems to enjoy working on letters right now. It’s fun to see her really engaged and working hard on a project. In addition to the handful she writes, she learns to sequence them out into simple two-letter word symbols. She writes n-t for nut or c-h for cheese, so I suspect she’ll have us working on letters and maybe even word-writing skills for a long while! Hopefully, we can grab some exciting data for research on it, too. Motor skill development for writing letter symbols is challenging. However, she is a very driven little creature, and I like to follow her passions in learning.

Isabella, umbrella cockatoo, playing games. Photo: Jennifer Cunha.
Ellie choosing food. Photo: Jennifer Cunha.

How do you think in the future birds could use tablets for choice? 

It’s hard to find words to describe how very meaningful I think CommBoard communication could be for captive parrots. Traditional husbandry practices include foraging and toys for mental enrichment. But choice and control in one’s environment is a primary reinforcer, like food and water. Choice is so essential for parrots’ mental wellbeing. The CommBoard isn’t a small grouping of symbols: it’s menus upon menus of options and opportunities for parrots to communicate their preferences about – yes, food, beverages, and treats – but also menus to request activities, games, social interaction, preferred locations and parrots can even learn to request experiences through associative conditioning and careful training. 

There’s another thing to mention, however. It’s that tablets (and the CommBoard) don’t require birds to be able to ‘pressure touch’ the screen to open new and enriched modes of communication. For birds who are not physically able to pressure touch or have difficulty learning motor skills, touching the boxes can be enough for owners to use for communication. The same training system described above can be utilized. The owner can touch where the bird touches to open the options menu, allowing the touch selection to guide the communication process. In that sense, the CommBoard is accessible for all types of birds.

One of my favourite things about the tablet is that there is no end to opportunities for birds to learn and engage with new challenges. In Parrot Kindergarten, we’ve seen parrots engage with a particular game, such as tracing practice or toddler puzzles, for many months and then transition into a new game after a while. Then the new game provides new kinds of mental challenges. Each bird tends to be a unique learner, and it’s fun to see the direction they choose to take with tablet learning and watch which games they love the most. From communication and art creation to motor skill development and challenging brain games, the tablet is versatile, having the potential to enrich birds’ and owners’ lives in so many great ways!

To find out more about Jennifer and Ellie, you can follow them on Facebook and Instagram, learn about the Parrot Kindergarten Program and read more in their ACI’20 paper here: