Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg


I was recounting stories of funny things parrots say to two librarian friends and one suggested I read Alex & Me, the story of woman who has a PhD in chemistry from MIT but has spent her work life researching animal behavior using an African Grey Parrot she had for 30 years.  She makes the case that Alex could label many items correctly enough times so that it was not a chance event.  She believes that he gave responses that indicated he understood numbers with surprising sophistication and that he used words appropriately that he heard but had not been taught to use.  

Many replications of trials were done to authenticate that Alex could name objects and he would grow bored.  The students doing the trials would admonish him to "Pay attention," or they would say, "You turkey" in disgust.  At some point someone gave him a toy stuffed bird; he asked it to tickle him (meaning scratch his head), and when the bird didn't respond after many tries, he denounced it, saying, "you turkey!"

From time to time several other birds were being trained in the same room; Alex would undermine their training by calling out the wrong answer; at other times, he would admonish the other bird who was speaking indistinctly to "say better."

And there was the time Irene was trying to show a visitor that he could identify the numbers of green objects.  The correct answer in this case was "two," and Alex was giving all the other numbers but two as the answer.  Finally, Irene said that apparently Alex needed a time out and took him to his room.  Immediately he called, "Two…two…two…I'm sorry…come here." 

Another researcher did some work to show that ravens are capable of problem solving activities by hanging a piece of meat from a horizontal branch by a string.  The ravens figure out to haul up the string with one claw and gather the string in the other until they can get the meat.  Irene tried this with the parrots in her lab and they too were able to solve that problem.  Alex, on the other hand, as king of the lab used another method:  he ordered whoever was present to hand him the desired object.  

Alex died unexpectedly at an young age and his death was noted in the New York Times, CNN, All Things Considered and other news stories.  He was given a one page obituary in the Economist,  an impressive honor.  The Alex studies and other animal behavior studies in recent years are changing our views of what animals understand; it's hard to explain away some of the things Alex said without accepting a new idea of our role in this world.

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