Author’s Note: Special thanks to Dr. Irene Pepperberg for collaborating with me via email and giving her consent and providing quotes for this article.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg is best known for her research with Alex, the famous African Grey parrot who learned how to count and tell the difference between colors, shapes, and sizes. Dr. Pepperberg believes that Alex—and African Grey parrots in general—have some cognitive skills comparable to those of human toddlers and that they can process information and feel emotions towards certain people the same way that humans can, although hard data for the latter is lacking. Hence, like children, the way a parrot is treated affects its mental health and its subsequent ability to perform tasks.
Alex broke boundaries that previously defined how people view animal intelligence and the way that creatures, including humans, learn cognitive skills. Dr. Irene Pepperberg has proven that other birds besides Alex can perform the same mental tasks, meaning that Alex was not a “freak of nature” but that most African Greys (and possibly many other kinds of birds) are likely capable of these intelligent behaviors.
Dr. Pepperberg got the idea to study parrot intelligence by watching NOVA television programs in the 1970s. In one NOVA episode, a researcher was demonstrating how apes could be taught sign language and therefore how it was possible for humans to breach the barrier between species and thus communicate with another creature. In another episode, researchers described how birds had to learn how to sing their songs. Irene had birds as pets during her childhood and she believed that parrots were also capable of learning inter-species communication.
After receiving her Ph.D. in 1976, Dr. Pepperberg adopted baby Alex from a pet store. The name Alex was selected since it stood for “Avian Learning EXperiment.” As soon as Dr. Pepperberg got Alex into the lab at Purdue University, she started training him to label objects (meaning that Alex was taught what words to say in order to describe something). For the rest of his life, Alex would use his vocabulary to illustrate that he was capable of thinking, not merely mimicking.
Dr. Pepperberg realized that Alex would need to be taught a series of basic words—such as colors and numbers—and master the meaning of those words in order to engage in academic experiments. To that end, Alex was, for example, taught how to respond to questions about “bigger” and “smaller” and understand what those terms meant. Once Alex had a fairly large vocabulary, Dr. Pepperberg taught him how to group things into categories. For example, “blue” and “green” went together as colors and “two and “four” went together as numbers. Alex was also taught labels like “wood,” “wool” and “paper” so he could describe the materials of the objects he encountered. Once the basic concepts of labels, meanings, and categories were established, Alex was able to think about and answer various questions about numerous objects. This proved that, like small children, certain animals can understand categorical labels and which objects belong under specific categorical labels.
“Same and different” were among the other concepts Alex acquired; same-different is quite advanced, and Alex’s achievement is remarkable considering that parrots have walnut-sized brains. Prior to Dr. Pepperberg’s research it was widely believed that only large-brained animals like humans—and perhaps apes—could grasp the concept of objects not only being similar or different, but also of understanding something as complex as that the same relationship could hold between different sets of objects, such as A-B and C-D. Alex was able to tell what was the same or different about objects based on their shape, size, color, and even texture. In other words, Alex could pinpoint the precise attributes that made the objects either the same or different from each other, and respond “none” if nothing were same or different. Dr. Pepperberg suggests that these are skills that a bird would need in order to survive in the wild. For example, using identifying skills such as color, shape, and size recognition could help a bird ensure which kind of berries are safe to eat and which are not.
Furthermore, Alex was capable of using his vocabulary to communicate the connections that he made in his mind. For example, he knew the word for “bread” and the word “yummy.” Upon tasting a piece of cake one day he exclaimed “yummy bread” without prompting. Alex also sometimes, though not often, created words to describe something that was not in his current vocabulary. Perhaps the most interesting example of this was when he used the word “banerry” to describe an apple. Alex did not know the word label for “apple” but he did know the labels for “banana” and “cherry.” When Alex first ate an apple it probably tasted like a banana to him yet it was red like a cherry, hence “banerry.” This behavior showed that Alex not only knew what he was saying, but that he had the ability to create new labels to describe objects and sensations in largely the same way that humans create and use language. Hence, Alex was able to think about how to convey messages and he therefore truly understood the meaning of words and how to correctly apply those words in coherent speech. Alex was also skilled at sounding out words and understanding how to handle the often-difficult vocalizations of the English language. According to Dr. Pepperberg:
“After learning how to produce sounds for specific phonemes after viewing their graphemes (“shhh” for SH, “nnnn” for N, “sssss” for S, etc.), he spontaneously sounded out “nnn,” “uuuh” and “ttt” for the word nut, even though he had never been trained on “uuu” and there were no graphemes present for N-U-T....so he figured out that his labels were made of individual sounds that could be separated out. Later, he figure out that these sounds could be recombined to form novel labels that we were training....such as "S...none" as his early approximation of “seven.”
Alex also managed to grasp the concept of how to use “none” as a zero-like concept. Startlingly, Alex was the one to initiate the discussion about “zero-ness,” since Dr. Pepperberg had long since considered it well over his level of cognitive skills. Obviously, Alex was smarter than even Irene had realized. One day, upon asking Alex to count the number of one set of many objects on a tray by providing the color of the set of three, Alex kept responding “five” even though there was no set of ‘five.” Puzzled, Dr. Pepperberg asked him: “What color five?” “None,” Alex replied. This was truly remarkable since Alex seemed to be using the absence of an attribute (such as five things of a certain color) to decipher the absence of objects. Hence, Alex had developed comprehension of the concept like that of “zero.”
The most remarkable aspect of this behavior was that Alex had not been asked to identify what equaled“nothing,” nor had he been taught anything about the concept of “zero.” This was something he had the cognitive skills to figure out on his own and then, by continuously giving the purposely wrong answer of “five,” Alex managed to playfully manipulate Dr. Pepperberg into asking him the question (“What’s five?”) that he wanted to answer. “Here he showed both the ability to know how to manipulate me, and to transfer use of “none” from absence of attributes to absence of objects,” Dr. Pepperberg explained.
The question of individualized personality in birds is far harder to prove but it is fairly clear that Alex had a mind of his own. For example, if he wanted a banana and was instead given a grape, he would throw the grape onto the ground and vocally demand the banana that he had initially requested. Alex was also attached to some people more than others, such as a student named Spencer and, of course, Irene whose speech patterns he had even picked up. If Alex was in a bad mood he could “act up” and purposefully give wrong answers, suggesting that his mood did indeed affect his answers. Meanwhile, Griffin—a younger African Grey that Dr. Pepperberg started working with alongside Alex—tends to be more affectionate than Alex and usually more eager to please. According to Dr. Pepperberg, it might be hard to scientifically “prove” that species other than humans have individual personalities, but many pet owners know this to be so:
“Any parrot owner will describe the personalities of the various parrots owned as distinct. I have descriptive evidence, but no real “proof” about the differences in my parrots. We showed that those birds trained to label were less likely to engage in a task that didn't involve labeling compared to those birds with less training (an insightful string pulling task)...but that had to do with training. In other aspects...well, Alex, for example, seemed to like to practice a lot and experiment with his labels; Griffin seems more like the “A” student who can do what he is told to get that “A” but is less likely to innovate.”
Alex was always rewarded with positive reinforcement, never punishment. Creating safe and secure environments in which to learn has long proven to have positive effects on children’s intake of information. It appears that the situation was the same for Alex. Hence, humans and other animals have similar cognitive responses to behavioral and environmental stimuli such as enjoying rewards. Thus, all educators, including those who homeschool, should be aware of how important it is to promote positive rewards for their students. Furthermore, understanding the similarities between humans and animals and basic cognition teaches us to feel a deeper understanding and compassion toward other creatures and that results in a deeper respect for life.
Sadly, Alex died suddenly on September 6, 2007. Although Alex is gone, his legacy lives on through the “The Alex Foundation.” Irene Pepperberg started the Foundation in order to fund her continuing research with African Greys. Currently, she is working with a number of birds including Griffin, who has successfully provided further insight into parrot cognition, including the fact that he sees optical illusions the same way as do humans.
The research lab costs about $100,000 a year to run and The Alex Foundation has established several initiatives for funding. The Alex Foundation has an online store on their website that sells Alex-related merchandise. Another option for Alex-supporting shoppers is to join a system called “I Give.” When one joins “I Give” the organization automatically gets $5. Then, at no cost to the user, when they sign into “I Give” before shopping elsewhere online, The Alex Foundation will automatically receive a few cents of the purchase. Participating stores include retail giants such as Macy’s and The Home Depot. Amazon.com also contributes. When one clicks on the Amazon.com button at www.AlexFoundation.org, a shopper can also have a part of their purchase price from amazon.com go to the Foundation.
More information on the “I Give” program can be found at: http://n9.igive.com/welcome/lp2/wr14.cfm?c=26695
Dr. Irene Pepperberg and The Alex Foundation support the safe and responsible care of pet parrots, the assurance of humane breeding programs and the cessation of illegally smuggled parrots. Anyone who is touched by Alex’s story or who is attached to a parrot is strongly encouraged to donate to this worthy cause. Additionally, further information about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg can be found at the following links:
The Alex Foundation:
A NOVA clip about Alex:
An hour-long Interview with Dr. Irene Pepperberg:
Alex and Me, Dr. Pepperberg’s best-selling book:
Human beings share the world with many other species. Learning about other species is central to understanding them, respecting them, and ultimately finding ways to coexist and appreciate the diversity in the world.