Off the Clock: Astronomy Professor Is Friend to Feathered Friends

Posted: December 2, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lynn Burke

What started off as a quiet evening of television about three years ago has turned into a passion for astronomy professor Rita Sambruna. The show Sambruna and her husband were watching was a BBC documentary about parrots–a comparison of parrots in captivity and parrots in the wild.

“I became fascinated by how smart they are,” says Sambruna, who is able to find much similarity between parrots and the black holes she studies for a living. “Parrots are complex, very challenging to understand, unpredictable. And they really suck you in, like a black hole. When I’m not thinking about black holes and galaxies, I’m thinking about parrots.

“They are creatures with feelings and distinct personalities,” Sambruna continues. She has two birds of her own and finds the differences between them astonishing. “The first bird, a female named Reggie, wants to be in the center of everything and explore everything, sneaking around corners, looking into every closet, every shelf.” Sambruna’s other parrot, a male named Opie, is the opposite–shy around visitors and likely to run and hide.

Even the way they communicate differs. Reggie lets Sambruna know what she wants by her actions, such as climbing up on Sambruna’s neck and pushing her head in the direction she wants to go or going to the faucet if she wants water. Opie, on the other hand, will talk up a storm. When he wants food, he will call out “Opie, yummy, yummy,” or if she leaves a room and Opie wants her to come back, he will start calling, “Mommy, Mommy, come here, Mommmyyyy!”

Does it sound like she’s dealing with toddlers? In a way, she is. Sambruna cites research performed by Irene Pepperberg, an MIT scientist who has been studying African Grey parrots and their cognitive abilities for 30 years. Pepperberg has found that the birds have the intelligence of a two-year-old child and the emotional development of a four-year-old child.

“They have a basic sense of self, which is also their curse,” says Sambruna. “It’s the reason why many people become fascinated with parrots. They go to the store and see these bright-colored parrots that say ‘pretty bird,’ ‘give me a kiss,’ or the like, and on an impulse they take them home.

“But unlike dogs and cats, which have been bred for human companionship for thousands of years, parrots are only one or two generations removed from the wild and bring into our living rooms their wild instincts. They are messy, dropping food on the floor, a practice that in the jungle allows other creatures to eat or helps with cross-pollination of plants.” In addition, Sambruna says that parrots are flock animals, and when you adopt a parrot, you become its flock. “They will want to be with you all the time,” she says, “and they will bite out of fear or boredom.” To top things off, parrots can live from 20 to 100 years depending on the species.

These demands unfortunately become too much for a number of parrot owners, and the birds are abandoned, a problem that has reached a crisis level, Sambruna says. Parrot rescue organizations are becoming unable to meet the need, and people are starting to use euthanasia.

Sambruna hopes to share her love of and fascination with parrots with other members of the university community through the Mason Parrot Club. She says the club not only serves as a forum where parrot enthusiasts can exchange information on their pets, but also helps educate the public on the challenges of owning these birds. Other club activities involve helping local parrot rescue organizations find good homes for abandoned birds and raising funds for those efforts.

The club’s next fund-raising activity is a Christmas sale of baked goods and jewelry today from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Johnson Center to benefit the Phoenix Landing Foundation, a local parrot rescue organization. Sambruna is director of the foundation’s Homes for Life Program. Among the foundation’s other activities is public education, and the group hopes to bring Pepperberg to George Mason this spring for a seminar.

For more information, visit the Mason Parrot Club web site or e-mail rms@physics.gmu.edu.

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