Dr. Irene Pepperberg has written a book about her work of three decades with the African Grey parrot Alex, who died unexepectedly in September, 2007. In his lifetime, Alex became a media star, thus helping to advance the understanding of both animal cognition and of the interconnectedness between animals and people.
Dr. Pepperberg set out to replicate with Grey parrots the experiments that explored linguistic and cognitive skills in chimpanzees. She acquired Alex (and later more Greys) in 1977, and developed a training program to take advantage of birds’ social orientation. Adapting the “model/rival” program of teaching developed by German ethologist Dietmar Todt, the parrots had two trainers at a time instead of one. Trainer A and B would sometimes train each other, then switch to the subject. As time went on, Alex was able to join in training new parrots.
This technique was radically different than the traditional stimulus-response mode of training. Under those conditions, no one could prove animals weren’t just robotically responding to hunger. Pepperberg was anxious to demonstrate to all the naysayers that Alex really did have intelligence and cognitive skills, and was not merely reflecting researcher hopes and biases.
Among the concepts Alex mastered were color, size, comparisons, numbers, appropriately translating parts of old concepts to new ones, and even the idea of none.
It is tempting to say that Alex was a remarkable soul; he touched the lives of many, and helped pave the way, along with other animal pioneers such as Koko and Washoe, toward a more humane understanding and better treatment of non-homo-sapiens.
Published by Harper, 2008
To read about The Alex Foundation and contribute to future research, click here.
To watch Einstein the talking parrot in action, check out this video: