Living in a Parrot Paradise

Lab rat of the week: Luke P. Thornburg ’13

Lab Rat: Luke Thornburg '13
Karen Zhou

Like most biologists, Luke P. Thornburg ’13 spends his time in the lab interacting with living subjects. But unlike many researchers, Thornburg sings to his subjects—and they sing back to him.

Thornburg works in the Avian Cognition Lab at Brandeis University with two African Grey Parrots named Griffin and Arthur. Since this February, he has been investigating the evolutionary relationship between parrots and humans.

“Parrots are a lot closer to humans than we thought,” said Thornburg, who is an Organismic and Evolutionary Biology concentrator with a secondary field in Psychology.

The Lowell House resident discovered animal cognition research last fall after taking comparative psychologist Irene M. Pepperberg’s seminar Psychology 980f, “Animal Cognition.” Pepperberg holds appointments in both Brandeis and Harvard’s psychology departments.

Thornburg said that he’s “always been an animal fan,” but until the seminar, his only experience with birds was time with his sister’s pet cockatiel.

He added that learning about Pepperberg’s research parrot Alex inspired him to try animal cognition research for himself.

“We read a lot of papers on Alex...I learned a lot about different [bird] species but a whole lot of [Pepperberg’s] personal stories were inspiring,” Thornburg said.

Pepperberg said that accepting Thornburg on her research team was a no-brainer.

“He wrote probably one of the most innovative finals I’ve seen,” she said. “When he asked to work in the lab, I instantly said yes.”

Currently, Thornburg’s research focuses on how parrots socialize and judge the size of objects in their environment. He spends nine hours a week at the cognition lab working with Griffin and Arthur.

“[Thornburg’s] been one of the most professional and dedicated students that I have,” said Suzanne Gray, the Avian Cognition Lab manager. “He always shows extreme interest and very careful, thought-through work. He’s a great person to brainstorm with when things aren’t going exactly as planned.”

Before Thornburg joined the lab, Griffin and Alex had been trained to recognize colors and objects. Now in his own research, Thornburg presents pairs of differently-sized colored cups and asks his parrots which one they think is the larger of the two. He works primarily with Griffin, as Arthur does not like to work with male scientists and is the less sociable of the two.

“[Griffin] has good days and bad days,” Thornburg said. “It’s not like you’re testing a bacterial strain or an organism that’s going to do the same thing every time. [Parrots] are temperamental animals and so they’re definitely affected by mood and what day it is."

Thornburg’s also studies the idea of “reciprocal altruism”: how animals offer gifts or acts of kindness to others.

Aside from his research, Thornburg is active in the Harvard Glee Club, a Christian fellowship group, and the Harvard Story-Time Players. The Players put on shows for children in hospitals and after-school programs.