If you were to search for “animals looking at themselves in the mirror” on YouTube, you would find a plethora of adorable videos – cats jumping at their own reflections, dogs pawing at themselves, dolphins dancing around.
And while some of these animals such as dolphins have definitely shown that they recognize their own reflection, evidence suggests that some other animals like cats and dogs don’t understand that they are looking at themselves.
But what about parrots?
Where do they fall on this spectrum?
Do parrots recognize themselves in the mirror?
To be honest, no one really has a definitive answer to this question. There is not enough that has been done in the way of experimental testing that conclusively determines that parrots can or cannot recognize themselves in the mirror. With that being said, it’s unlikely.
But how did we reach this conclusion?
And what do parrots do when they look at themselves in the mirror?
Today we will look further into this interesting question and learn more about what parrots might be thinking when they see their reflection.
So let’s not waste another minute:
What does it mean when an animal recognizes their reflection in the mirror?
Before we talk more about whether or not parrots recognize their reflection, why don’t we first discuss why it even matters.
What does it mean when an animal recognizes themselves in the mirror, and why do people even spend time researching it?
The reason that research like this matters is because we want to know whether animals (or which animals) have self-awareness.
Self-awareness, or the conscious knowledge of oneself, is something that we all have as humans.
In its simplest form, self-awareness is the knowledge that we exist as an individual.
As people, we are all aware that we have our own individual likes and dislikes, that we all have our unique thoughts and experiences, and that we all have our own unique abilities.
But do animals have the same self-awareness that we do as humans?
When a dog gets sprayed by a skunk, do they realize that they are the one that smells?
Is a parrot aware of its own unique identity?
As it turns out – some animals do have self-awareness, but as of so far it doesn’t look like the parrot is one of them.
But what does this have to do with mirrors?
As it turns out, researchers have developed an experiment to test these questions and to determine whether or not animals actually do have self-awareness – and it’s called the mirror test.
The Mirror Test
Developed by a Psychologist by the name of Gordon Gallop Jr. in 1970, the mirror test is a test that is designed to determine whether or not an animal has self-awareness.
Here’s how it works:
Step 1: A visual mark is placed on the animal’s body using paints, stickers, or dyes.
Step 2: The animal is placed in front of a mirror.
Step 3: A researcher records the reaction of the animal and makes note of their observations.
Step 4: The animals reaction is compared to previous experiments where the same animal was placed in front a mirror without the mark.
If an animal tries to get a better look at the mark, or tries to touch or remove the mark, this shows that they have awareness of the self. It also means that they have passed the mirror test.
If an animal completely ignores the mark, it could be a good sign that they are not self-aware.
It also means that they have failed the mirror test.
Parrots – Pass or Fail?
Most humans are able to pass the mirror test by the age of 18 months old.
Animals that have passed the mirror test include chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, bonobos, and magpies.
To date, parrots do not pass the test.
What does happen when a parrot looks in the mirror?
Some animals who look in a mirror will simply pass by, acting as if they didn’t even notice.
Parrots are not one of these animals.
Most parrots who see their reflection will have intense reactions.
Some will try to attack themselves, some will peck at their reflection, and others will engage in behaviors like head bobbing or wing flapping.
In one study by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, African Greys were studied to determine how they would react when placed in front of a mirror.
In almost all situations, the parrots did acknowledge their reflection.
Time in front of the mirror resulted in several different reactions including “beak wrestling”, talking, and tapping on the mirror with their beaks.
When the mirror was placed vertically, more aggressive reactions were noted wherein the parrots actually attacked their own reflection.
Does this suggest that parrots have self-awareness?
No. Rather, all of these behaviors and interactions suggest that when parrots see themselves in the mirror, they probably think it is another bird.
Depending on the personality of the parrot, reactions may be that of curiosity, while others may be that of aggression.
So to date, mirror tests have not concluded that parrots are self-aware or that they recognize their own reflection.
Rather, they seem to misinterpret their reflection as that of another bird.
Does this mean that parrots can’t recognize their own reflection?
But there’s no denying that parrots are extremely intelligent birds.
Most African Greys display the same cognitive abilities of a 4-6 year old.
They can learn up to 100 words, and can also learn colors, shapes, and numbers.
As such, it would not be surprising if parrots really did have self-awareness, and we just haven’t found the right test to measure it yet.
Are there any parrots who have displayed self-awareness?
Though no parrots have passed the mirror test to date, there is some hope for parrots out there.
Take the case of Alex the parrot.
Alex the parrot is the only bird, or animal for that matter, that has ever asked the question “What color am I?”
Born in 1976, Alex was an African Grey parrot that quickly gained the attention of Universities studying animal behaviors.
Several different experiments showed that Alex had the same intelligence level of a 5 year old child and was able to learn a variety of different shapes and colors in a short period of time.
This type of intelligence was not abnormal for African greys, but when his owner first decided to put him in front of a mirror, Alex had quite an unpredictable reaction.
He asked “what color?” In other words, he was asking what color he was.
Though Alex has since passed, he still remains the only parrot to ever ask a question about himself.
Does this mean that he had self-awareness?
The verdict is up in the air, but it is definitely a possibility, and that possibility means that we cannot conclusively rule out the idea that parrots do, in fact, have self-awareness.
Is it safe to leave my parrot in front of a mirror?
As we have already established, most parrots will react to their own reflection as if there is another bird in the room.
The answer to this question then depends on the personality of your parrot.
If your parrot is generally friendly with other parrots, then they probably won’t have a dangerous reaction when placed in front of the mirror.
But if they tend to be more aggressive towards other birds, leaving them in front of a mirror could place them in danger.
When an aggressive parrot spends time in front of the mirror, they could try to attack their reflection and, because the mirror is a hard surface, this could result in unwanted injuries.
The best advice we can give is to keep your parrot away from mirrors when you are not around.
If you insist on keeping a mirror nearby, test your parrot’s reaction to it first.
If the reaction is non-aggressive, it might be okay to keep a mirror nearby.
But if the reaction is one of aggression, the mirror should be removed to prevent injury.
In conclusion, no one really knows if parrots can recognize themselves in the mirror or not.
To date, they have not passed the mirror test which suggests that parrots do not recognize their reflection and therefore do not have self-awareness.
With that being said, it may just be the case that parrots show self-awareness in other ways that have not yet been studied.
So while evidence appears to suggest that parrots do not recognize their own reflection, parrots like Alex show us that we cannot yet draw a definitive conclusion.