Communication with Parrots Parrots, and other talking birds, have fascinated mankind since Aristotle. Once thought to be mere mimics, these affable, entertaining and often quite lovable creatures are now known to possess remarkable intellectual abilities. Since 1977, Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s studies in Ethology (Animal Behavior) and Animal-Human communications have provided insight into the capabilities of these animals to talk and to understand. Dr. Pepperberg currently works with 3 Congo African Grey Parrots.
Alex, the oldest, can count, identify objects, shapes, colors and materials, knows the concepts of same and different, and bosses around lab assistants in order to modify his environment! They have begun work with phonics and there is evidence to suggest that, someday, Alex may be able to read. The results of this work have wide-ranging implications for at least three areas: Studies of avian versus mammalian brain function: Given that the avian brain, although considerably different from that of mammals, can process information in similar ways, might Dr. Pepperberg’s procedures assist clinicians who are devising programs for brain-damaged humans Programs for teaching language to dysfunctional children: Dr. Pepperberg’s training techniques are being used, with some success, for developmentally-delayed children; might the procedures also work for children with other types of deficits Targeting parrots for wildlife conservation initiatives: If parrots are as intelligent as chimpanzees and dolphins, shouldn’t we make the same attempts to save them and their habitat as we are making for these other species This page is dedicated to Irene, her students, and those aviculturists around the world who choose to follow in their footsteps. You are the th visitor since March 1, 1996 Pepperberg, Irene Maxine, Ph.
... parents and adopted parents are have good intentions and work together the child will be able to complete each stage successfully. ... occurs in adulthood. Generativity includes responsibilities such as raising children and being productive in a job. Adults who do not ... autonomy developed in the second stage. During this stage children begin pretend play with peers and accept responsibilities such as ...
D. Popular Press Publications Index Scientific Publications – Book marked by Year of Publication – Article in Preparation, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1987, 1986, 1985, 1983, 1981 Dr. Pepperberg’s Autobiographical Data Dr. Pepperberg’s Faculty Page @ U. Of Arizona Pepperberg, ALEX, CAG (Psittacus erithacus) Alex, the Grey: In training sessions with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, written by Chris Davis, produced by the Wasatch Avian Education Society – A new professionally filmed and edited VIDEO featuring Alex and Dr.
Pepperberg as they work in the lab. A must see if you would like to use Model/Rival Training with your own avian partners. Alex the Talking Parrot, Discovery Channel Online, August 1995 (revised November, 1996) – More of Alex on the Internet, including some recent photos and a QuickTime Movie (3 megabytes).
Interview with a Parrot, by Madhusree Mukerjee, Scientific American, April 1996 No BirdBrains! , by Sy Montgomery, Animals, May/June 1995 The Subject is Alex, by Kenn Kaufman, Audubon, Sept.
/Oct. 1991- Dr. Pepperberg considers this to be one of the best articles written to date about her work with Alex. This Parrot Means What He Says, by Clara Germane, The Christian Science Monitor Selected Articles by Dr.
Pepperberg Referential Communication with an African Grey Parrot, Harvard Graduate Society Newsletter, Spring, 1991. Studies to Determine the Intelligence of African Grey Parrots Proceedings of The International Aviculturists Society, January 11 – 15, 1995. Talking Birds, Pepperberg, I. M. & Bright, R. J.
, Birds USA 1990 – An excellent introduction on how to teach companion birds to talk and understand! If you would like to support Dr. Pepperberg’s work, you are encouraged to send a tax-deductible contribution to: The ALEX Foundation%Dr. Irene Pepperberg Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721 Bird Brains’ and Other Interesting Reading ‘Of Course Size Matters’, by Mats Grain, G rgen G rans son, Tor bj rn von Schatz and H kan Witt zell. – Ever wonder how birds choose their mates Scientific research from Sweden that shows how it is done among pheasants. Scientific Evidence that Birds are Aware, Intelligent, and Astonishingly Like Humans, excerpts from The Human Nature of Birds by Theodore Xenophon Barber -“The author presents highlights from his recent book which documents that birds are aware, intelligent, and shockingly like humans in numerous ways… .” Tool Using Crows Give New Meaning to Term ‘Bird Brained’, by Richard Karel, Psychiatric News, March 1, 1996 – an “intriguing report” on the manufacture and use of tools by New Caledonian crows Other Internet Resources American Psychological Association – Publisher of Journal of Comparative Psychology American Psychological Society animal behavior Society – Publisher of ANIMAL BEHAVIOR International Aviculturists Society – Funding for a variety of Avian Research Projects Internet Animal Behavior – Nebraska Behavioral Biology Group Homepage (numerous links to behavioral science information around the world) Inter species Communication, Inc.
... species is attributed in part to domestic animals imported to Mauritius by the settlers; animals such as hogs escaped to the woods ... 1598 by Dutch colonizers, who characterized it as a sluggish bird unafraid of humans. Dodos were last observed in 1681. The ... island of Mauritius. About the size of a turkey, the bird had a large hooked bill, undeveloped wings and tail, and ...
– Dolphins, Whales, philosophy, and other interesting links Midwest Avian Research Expo – an annual conference benefiting avian research and education National Science Foundation – NSF Web Server, a governmental body that funds a vast number of research projects. (WAIS Search for Dr. Pepperberg’s grant awards) sci. bio.
ethology – Animal Behavior Newsgroup Please send your comments, questions, etc. about Dr. Pepperberg, Alex or this Web Page to Gary L. Biggs, . Please include either the word ALEX or Pepperberg in the subject area of your message. Copyright 1996, Gary L.
Biggs and The Alex Foundation – all rights reserved 11/5/96 FIELD NOTES Interview with a Parrot Physicists hope to get anti hydrogen to live longer than 40 nanoseconds For months, I have been waiting to meet Alex, the celebrity African gray parrot who has given new meaning to the epithet “birdbrain.” Trained by Irene M. Pepperberg of the University of Arizona, Alex may be the only nonhuman who speaks English and means what he says. The 20-year-old bird is said to count up to six and to recognize and name some 100 different objects, along with their color, texture and shape; his ability to categorize rivals that of chimpanzees. Walking into Pepperberg’s small laboratory with a friend, I am stopped short by a furious barrage of wolf whistles. Flustered, I locate the source as a medium-size gray bird with a knowing eye, standing on a table littered with fruit and paper fragments. “Alex likes tall men,” explains Pepperberg, indicating my companion.
... blood is also ambiguous because it symbolizes the bird and African Americans identity. The African American society lives feeling that they are ... same wounds over and over again. Both the bird and the African Americans desire for freedom never died down, only ... reader a comparison between the life of a caged bird and the African Americans throughout history. Dunbar uses vivid language, repetition, ...
Within minutes Alex is perched on his shoulder, shivering, fluttering and hopping from foot to foot with excitement. “If he really likes you,” a student warns, “he ” ll throw up into your ear”-referring to a parrot’s instinct for regurgitating food and stuffing it into a mate. “You wanna grape” Alex suddenly asks his new consort in a nasal but perfectly clear voice. I am transfixed with awe-until Pepperberg explains that Alex occasionally uses phrases without meaning them.
Sometimes he does mean them. Ill at ease on my hand, Alex squawks, “Wanna go back,” and climbs onto the back of a chair. Watching the transactions are two other African grays-Kyaaro, a nervous bird that Pepperberg likens to a child with attention-deficit disorder, and Griffin, a fluffy, wide-eyed six-month-old. It is mealtime, and while Kyaaro sips his coffee-which, I am told, helps to calm him down-Griffin is being coaxed with bits of banana. “Bread,” announces Alex, and, being handed a piece of muffin, proceeds to eat carefully around the blueberries. My friend leaves so that Alex can concentrate, and we get to work.
“How many” asks a student, displaying a tray with four corks. But Alex is in an ornery mood and will not look. “Two,” he says quickly; then, “Cork nut”-his designation for an almond, his reward. “That’s wrong, Alex. No cork nut.
How many”Four,” Alex replies. “Four,” echoes Kyaaro melodically from across the room. Griffin, on my shoulder, pulls out my hairpins while I try to take notes. “You weren’t looking,” the student sighs and fetches a metal key and a green plastic one. “What toy”Key.”How many”Two.”What’s different”Color.” This time Alex gets his cork nut. While he nibbles, Griffin hops off to steal the rest of Alex’s food, and I take out my camera.
... meaningful relationships with others by playing with other children. The child learns that relationships between peers and indeed all people ... of those other children; therefore, a child can learn something from another child simply by watching the other child. Dr. Brazelton ... statement that, "in healthy peer relationships between toddlers, children learn the give and takes of equality." This is a ...
Instantly, Alex puffs out his feathers-or what is left of them, given that he has pulled out most of his tail-and straightens up. I have to put the device away before he can get back to work. Alex goes on to identify a stone as “rock,” a square as “four corner,” the letters “O” and “R” placed together as “OR” and eventually to request in a small, sad voice, “Cork nut.” Pepperberg teaches her parrots by using a threesome-herself, the bird and a student. One person holds up an object; the other names and then receives it. Listening, watching and practicing, the bird learns the word that will get him the new toy. These days Alex often substitutes for a human in teaching the younger birds.
He rarely makes mistakes when in this role, and Kyaaro and Griffin learn faster from him than from humans. For a long time, scientists believed that birds, with their small brains, were capable of no more than mindless mimicry or simple association. But Pepperberg has shown that Alex, at least, can use language creatively-and also reason with a complexity comparable to that demonstrated in nonhuman primates or cetaceans. Next, Pepperberg hopes to teach Alex that symbols such as “3 refer to a particular number of objects. My friend returns, and Alex is distracted again. “I’m sorry,” he says after a particularly poor session.
“Wanna go back.” It is time to leave. The parting is eased by the arrival of a tall male student. My last glimpse of the astonishing Alex reveals a scruffy gray bird dancing in ecstasy on a man’s shoulder. by Madhusree Mukerjee Scientists have trained chimpanzees and gorillas to use sign language and even to make up simple sentences.
Dolphins have learned to poke at symbolic keys. So animals can learn a rudimentary use of a language. Nothing new there. But in choosing an African Grey parrot to study, Irene Pepperberg has a subject with an uncanny ability to mimic the human voice.
... go straight to Zaron, the god of all the animals. The parrots could only imagine what would happen to them if Zaron ... must you be so cruel to all of the animals?" all the parrots did was laugh and then told the mammoth to ... had heard this he furiously yelled "how dare you idiotic birds disobey me a second time!" So as he had promised ...
And Alex’s speaking voice is unnervingly soft and well-articulated. No raucous “Polly want a cracker” or sailor’s blue streak here. Accurate about 80 percent of the time, Alex distinguishes the things he is shown – from a rock to a set of keys – by shape, color and material. He can ask for exactly what he wants: “Want yellow key.” When he tires of this he ” ll say, “Wanna go away.” He’s even made up his own words. Shown an apple, he called it “banerry,” apparently a combination of “banana” and “cherry.” Handed an almond in the shell, he branded it a “cork nut.” African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) are the most talented mimics among the 315 parrot and related species (parakeets, cockatoos, budgerigars and so forth, all of which are tropical).
Their skill remains unexplained.
In the wild, parrots tend to live in noisy flocks, and some scientists believe that parrot pairs may learn to mimic specific birds’ calls in order to better locate each other in the flock. One of Pepperberg’s students, Diana May, went to the Central African Republic last year to record and study the vocal behavior of African Greys for the first time. May found that wild African Greys are very gregarious – feeding and avoiding predators as a group – and that parrot pairs seem to spend time together even when not raising young. With more work she hopes she can eventually match specific calls to particular activities in parrot society.
After training with Pepperberg for 19 of his 20 years, Alex is learning to count and to tell how many objects of a certain kind are in a batch of many kinds and colors. He can also tell you which of two objects is larger or smaller (he can even call them the “same” if they are).
He’s begun to learn the sounds associated with the letters T, SH, and OR; Pepperberg believes he ” ll be able to read before long. Pepperberg stresses that her success with Alex comes from combining what scientists already knew about natural parrot behavior and human language. Previous researchers had failed to teach birds to talk because they only used human psychology on them. In the 1970 s, armed with a degree from M.
... other behavioral and environmental factors—rather than anything learned from animal experiments—are responsible for the fact that people are ... . law that governs the use of animals in laboratories—the Animal Welfare Act—allows animals to be burned, shocked, poisoned, ... specifically excludes rats, mice, birds and cold-blooded animals, more than 95 percent of the animals used in laboratories are not ...
I. T. , Pepperberg was working on a doctorate in quantum chemistry at Harvard when she happened to watch a Nova program on public television about biologists who were teaching chimpanzees to use sign language, and others, such as Roger Payne, who were listening in on the songs of humpback whales. “You mean,” she said to herself, “you can be a scientist and do that” She talked to the Harvard biology department and for two years worked 40 hours a week studying animal behavior and 40 hours a week getting her Ph. D. in chemistry.
Moving to Purdue University in Wakefield, Ind. , she bought Alex at a pet store and set up a lab; later she and Alex moved to Tucson. Today she is a member of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Learning is a highly social affair, as it turns out, so Alex learns nothing from a tape recording of human voices or even from videotaped conversations.
In a study with two other African Grey parrots named Kyaaro and Griffin, Pepperberg showed objects to one parrot while an audiotape gave the names: No learning occurred. Only with the continuous interaction of the teacher did learning occur. This has also been found to be true in teaching human children a second language. Even television programs with a tutorial style are of little value.
The parrots learn best when two trainers teach each other, one asking questions, the other “learning” the right response. Alex listens and watches, and then breaks in, competing with the model. This system is called two-part modeling, and it’s the centerpiece of Pepperberg’s method. When Alex takes one of the human trainer’s place to model one side of the conversation, Kyaaro and Griffin learn even faster. In a year of training, young Griffin has learned tasks that Pepperberg says even dogs have trouble with. What Alex and his avian compatriots have learned in the lab turns out to be instructive for teaching certain children as well.
A child with cerebral palsy sits in pediatric therapist Diane Sherman’s office in Fresno, Calif. She has virtually no motor control, and her speech until recently has been limited to bouts of screaming. She has been watching a volunteer college student who screams like her… and gets nothing. Then the student says “Muh” and lifts her hand toward her mouth. This signals Sherman, who begins to sing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” It’s the child’s favorite song.
On the third trial the child herself says “Muh” and raises her hand. Diane sings the song. For the first time, the child has begun to communicate with the world beyond her, to learn how to control her environment. Sherman specializes in helping children with a variety of disabilities, from those who are developmentally delayed (retarded) to autistic. In 1991, for her own amusement, she attended an animal behavior lecture by Irene Pepperberg and immediately saw that the “two-part modeling” system Pepperberg uses with Alex might work with her own patients.
Sherman’s work is showing that the technique that taught a parrot to talk can open up a world of hope for challenged kids. Research:” Alex” is no ordinary bird. He seems to understand the questions that are put to him and to offer answers that mean the same to him as they do to people. BY CLARA GERMANE Originally from: THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR Reprinted from: AVI NEWS, NORTH COUNTY AVICULTURISTS, Vista Ca. Tucson, Ariz. – Irene Pepperberg holds a tray of children’s toys before her best student, ALEX.
The colorful jumble of items would dazzle the eyes of anyone with a sense of play: an orange paper square, a yellow metal key, a blue plastic key, a five-cornered green wood slice, a red wool fuzz ball, a black toy truck and a purple plastic letter R. “What is rose red-colored” She asks her charge. And with a quick cock of his head, Alex responds correctly, “Wool.” With an approving nuzzle from his teacher, Alex is rewarded with the red wool fuzz ball. But that reward is destined not for the fat little hands of a child: Instead, it goes to the hard beak of an African Grey parrot that has learned to speak – not simply parrot – a very basic form of English. Skeptics may roll their eyes. But anyone visiting Pepperberg’s University of Arizona laboratory to watch Alex work cannot deny that something very unusual is happening.
Pepperberg’s l 5-year research with Alex is beginning to gain recognition in many disciplines from conservation science to medicine and among educators looking for new training techniques for the developmentally disabled. With his vocabulary of 90-plus words, Alex can label items by color, shape and material. He can distinguish quantities of item sup to six. When considering two objects, he can tell whether one object is bigger or smaller than another and what attribute is the same or different. And, in his latest amazing accomplishment, Alex is learning to recognize the sounds of some letters of the alphabet and is beginning, when shown these letters together, to sound out words like a child learning to read. “Nobody thought that a parrot could really learn to label an object,” Pepperberg says.
“Everybody knew that parrots could mimic sound, but to make that association between sound and an object… Only people who had the birds as pets made such claims; there was no scientific evidence. “On the tests that we ” ve given, he’s performed at the same level as dolphins and chimpanzees,” she says. A skeptical visitor asks if this couldn’t just be a sophisticated form of memorization.
Pepperberg points to many bins of Alex ” s playthings and asks, “How could he memorize all this ” So the visitor taps Alex’s beak with a pen cap he’s never seen before. “What color” Alex is asked. “Blue,” he croaks correctly from his perch on the back of a folding chair. Raking through Alex’s toys with her hand, Pepperberg explains that any one of these items can be the subject of queries about shape, color, size and material. Memorization would not explain why Alex can correctly categorize them with an average accuracy of 80%. Pepperberg’s studies conclude that, in some limited way, Alex must be understanding questions put to him and offering answers that mean the same to him as they do to people.
Pepperberg’s work “changes the whole way we think about parrots and other animals. It’s very important,” says Donald R. Griffin, a professor emeritus at Rockefeller University in New York City and author of textbooks on animal thinking. “Here’s a bird that has learned to use English words in relatively meaningful ways. He seems to mean what he says…
and that is a real revolution, because there’s a whole 20 th-Century tradition of minimizing animal thinking or fitting it into rather narrow mental categories like conditioning,” he says. Pepperberg says many scientists “go ballistic” over suggestions that there is anything more to the bird’s cognitive abilities than the research shows. “Consciousness,” for example, is something she steers clear of discussing. “it’s a real source of debate,” Pepperberg says.
“There are people who claim that ‘Yes, the only way animals could do these types of tasks is if they were consciously thinking.’ Other people say, ‘Well, yes, after you learn how to do multiplication tables, you don’t think about it, you just do it, and maybe they ” re using some kind of process like that.” This kind of debate kept Pepperberg’s research from wide acclaim until recently, when the growing body of her difficult-to-dispute findings became more widely known. Pepperberg’s work had unconventional beginnings. As a Harvard chemical-physics doctoral student in the early 1970 s, she saw three segments of the Nova television program dealing with animal communication and felt a “click” of intrigue that theoretical chemistry had never sparked. So while finishing the chemistry degree she has not used, she started attending courses on animal behavior and studied the few research projects that dealt with parrot communication She found nothing but failure in teaching the birds to truly communicate. Perhaps because she went into the field of animal behavior fresh, without the traditional prejudices of psychology and ethology, she found the success that eluded others, colleagues say. For $600, she bought Alex as a l-year-old in 1976 at a pet store and began her research, using a new training technique.
“Our techniques are based on what these birds probably do in the wild, Pepperberg says. It’s most likely that they learn their vocalizations from watching their peers and their parents.” she teaches Alex by letting him watch her-teach” a person. For example, with Alex in the room, the trainer will teach the other person the word for an object and praise of scold him for success or failure. Then, turning to Alex, the trainer will attempt to teach the same word, using praise or scolding in the same way; Similarly, Alex is being used as the model to train one of two new young African Grey parrots that have joined the research. Further, she explains, to reinforce the meaning of what the bird is doing, she does not use food rewards.
For example, when a bird learns to label an obtest, that object – not a peanut – is used as the reward. Does it matter if a beautiful bird from the African rain forest can think at some level and speak ” This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Charles Munn, a research zoologist with Wildlife Conservation International. “I don ” think Alex is special,” Munn says. “He’s just a run-of-the-mill African Grey someone happened to pick up at random.” Munn, who has learned to understand the meanings behind some of the most common vocalizations of Amazon parrots in the South American wild, says Pepperberg’s “work is putting parrots on the map, making people realize these birds are exciting.” When dolphins, chimpanzees and whales became known for being sentient, they became popular theme animals for environmentalism. So too could parrots help sensitize the public to the twin threats that could make them extinct: deforestation and their capture for sale as pets. Further, a Fresno school for developmentally delayed children has adopted Pepperberg’s modeling technique, seeing hope in her success in teaching a simple form of English to a bird that does not normally learn any form of human language and does not learn to use it easily.
The Pepperberg Home Page [KEYINFO] [TOP] [NEXT]Copy 1995 KeyInfo Services Inc. All Rights Reserved At first sight Alex appears out of place, somebody’s pet brought in for the day and plopped down in a corner of the modern research laboratory at the University of Arizona. But the impression is wrong. Alex is the research. An African Grey, Psittacus Erithacus, he lacks the gaudy greens and yellows of many species. Despite his silky sheen and crimson tail feathers, he seems duller than the average parrot.
Perched on the back of a metal folding chair with newspapers unceremoniously spread underneath, he shifts his feet nervously and turns an owlish eye toward anyone who approaches. “Alex, how many” A researcher holds up a purple metal key and a larger green plastic key. The parrot stares, turning his head slowly: The question hangs for fifteen silent seconds. Why expect an answer Doesn’t “to parrot” mean “to mimic mindlessly ” But then the parrot says, “Two.” The same two keys are held up with a different question. “Which is bigger” Again the parrot stares, pauses, then says, “Green key.” Next is a wooden Popsicle stick.
“What matter” Again the long pause, again a correct answer: “Wood.” Getting the stick as a reward, Alex splinters it in his massive beak. It’s strange to watch this bird perform-especially strange for anyone with a background in traditional science. For years the assumption had been that “talking” birds are nothing but mimics, attaching no meaning to their “words.” But this parrot seems to crush that assumption as easily as he crushes Popsicle sticks. Alex is impressive-and so is the scientist who trained him.
Irene Pepperberg was well on her way to earning a Ph. D. in chemical physics from Harvard when, in 1973, her professional interest began to shift toward animals. The Nova programs on public service television provided the spark: It was the first time, she says, that TV had shown wild animals as they really were and had suggested scientific studies of them were worthwhile. Especially compelling were programs on animal communication: voices of birds attempts to teach sign language to chimpanzees.
“Suddenly,” Pepperberg says, “mathematical modeling of the reaction pathways of molecules seemed a lot less exciting than trying to understand communication in animals.” Zoologists at Harvard advised her against switching majors. “Since I was so close to earning my degree, they said I should go ahead and complete my doctoral work. The Ph. D. was considered a kind of ‘union card,’ and they claimed it would be easier to change fields once I had the degree.” Continuing to work forty hours a week on chemistry, she spent an additional forty reading everything relevant to animal mental behavior and communication. By the time she’d finished her official education in chemical physics she had an unofficial education in a very different field-and an idea about how to put it to use.
Inspired by the efforts to teach sign language to chimps and other primates, Pepperberg began to think about similar projects with birds. “Most people felt that the brain structure of birds wouldn’t allow for much intelligence,” she says, “or that the striatal area in birds couldn’t handle information as well as the cortex in mammals. But a different brain type didn’t have to be fundamentally inferior. Birds had done well in experiments with problem-solving based on numbers. Otto Koehler had ravens, jackdaws and Grey parrots that could match numbers of spots up to eight. Pastore’s canaries could pick out the third item from a series.
Logler had an African Grey parrot trained on numbers up to eight. “In all these tests the birds ‘responded’ by picking a certain item. There was no vocal response. In the 1940’s and 1950’s a psychologist named Mower tried to teach parrots to use words for objects, and that effort failed. But I thought it should be possible to teach a bird to use at least a few vocal labels. The vocal behavior of birds is such a rich subject.
Some individual march wrens, for example, will use hundreds of different songs, and a lot is known about how some birds learn their songs indifferent context-suggesting that they attach some meaning to the sounds. So why not see if those meanings could be attached to specific objects ” Her Ph. D. work complete, Pepperberg wound up in Indiana on the academic periphery of Purdue University. Her husband had job there; she did not. But Purdue agreed to let her use lab space if she would raise the funds for her research.
She designed her own study and, in June 1977, bought Alex, a thirteen-month-old grey parrot chosen at random in a Chicago pet store. “The Grey parrot was the logical species,” she says. “It had done so well with numbers in Logler’s tests. Besides, if you think about wild parrots, they live in social groups. Most are in tropical forests, where the foliage is dense, and they might need complex vocal signals to stay in touch.” Pepperberg’s logic sounds simple in retrospect.
At the outset, however, launching her study was far from easy. She wrote grant proposals, but no one was interested in funding an offbeat “talking bird” experiment. So she scraped up used equipment, enlisted volunteer help, and endured the mild put-downs of other scientists. Within a few months it appeared Alex was catching on; within a couple of years it was beyond doubt. In a paper entitled ” Functional Vocalizations by an African Grey Parrot” published in 1981, Pepperberg reported Alex could identify more than thirty objects by name, shape, and color; he had averaged 80 percent accuracy over some two hundred tests. This was a breakthrough, the first solid evidence that a bird could attach meanings to sounds, labels to objects.
But the experiments went on from there. “OKAY, ALEX, BACK to the chair.” It’s a rule of the lab: On the counter top, the floor, or someone’s shoulder, Alex can clown around or request whatever he wants, but when he sits on the back of the metal chair, he has to work. “Alex, what ” this”Rr rock!” says Alex. Irene Pepperberg hands him the rock, which he turns over in his bill a couple of times before dropping it on the floor. Next question: “What color” Alex eyes the blue toy truck and reaches for it. Pepperberg pulls it away.
“No. Tell me what color” Alex pauses and then says, “Want a nut.” Pepperberg speaks sharply and turns away: “No! Bad parrot! Pay attention. What color” Finally he gets it out (“Bl hoo”), and gets to play with the truck. Then he has a request of his own: “Want pah-ah.”Better!” says Pepperberg “Say it better.” Alex tries again. “Want pah-ss dah.”Okay, that’s pretty good,” says Pepperberg, and hands him a piece of raw pasta. He crunches it hard, sending a shower of fragments to join the accumulation of crushed shredded-wheat squares, Popsicle sticks, and grapes on the newspaper below.
Then Pepperberg holds up three spools of different sizes and colors.” Which is smaller” Show Alex a paper triangle and ask,” What shape ” and he ” ll say, “Three-corner.” Show him five Popsicle sticks dyed red and ask, “What color” and he ” ll say,” Rose.” Then ask, “How many” and he ” ll say, “Five.” He is clearly responding to the question itself, as well as to the objects. He understands “different” and “same” and can answer questions about relationships: Show him a blue-dyed cork and blue key and ask, “What’s the same” he will answer, “Color.” Show him two identical squares of rawhide and ask, “What’s different ” and he will say, “None.” Substitute a pentagon for one square, and he will answer,” Shape.” To do these things Alex must understand the question, analyze several qualities, compare them, and search his vocabulary; he is processing information on several levels. None of this is simple memorization. On questions of size or color or shape, “different ” or “same,” Alex scores slightly better with new objects than with familiar ones; novelty seems to focus his attention.
It’s an incredible performance for a bird. But Alex did not reach this level by accident. Every detail of his training and testing has been carefully considered. For example, Alex regularly nuzzles and scratches with Pepperberg and all the student assistants. This is essential. The parrot is highly social and needs this interplay.
If it felt no bond with researchers, it would never cooperate. On the other hand major problems could result if the bird felt a strong “pair bond” with one person-parrots can be violently jealous about their “mates.” Thus, assistants were brought into interact with Alex from the beginning. Alex does not seem to know the meaning of “bad parrot” or “good parrot ” or “pay attention” but tones of approval and disapproval are enough to influence him. Another factor to reinforce learning: appropriate rewards.
Past experiments with birds had rewarded “correct behavior ” with food. But when Alex names an object correctly he is rewarded with the object itself; he may examine it, scratch himself with it, or chew it for several minutes before he loses interest and drops it. The language training rests on a technique developed by German biologist Dietmar To dt, who found the Grey parrot learned phrases most quickly from two trainers: One formed a bond with the parrot; the other acted as both “rival” and model. For the parrot to gain the attention of its “mate,” it learned to mimic simple phrases used repeatedly by the model / rival . In Pepperberg ” study no one person took the role of Alex’s mate. Trainers took turns “training” each other to name objects while Alex watched and listened; eventually he joined in.
The initial aim was to teach Alex to use words for objects, something no bird had been proven to do before. Next the focus moved to categories of color and shape, to numbers, to concepts such as similarity and difference. At every stage Alex was subjected to rigorous tests. The results had to be above question-beyond any suggestion the bird was receiving cues from the researchers. Tests were administered by students who had not taken part in the training. Pepperberg kept score of Alex ” answers but sat with her back turned, unable to see the objects being presented.
Each response had to be clear enough to be understood. Alex would get no hints, no leniency. But as the tests became more complex, Alex continued to score around 80 percent accuracy in his answers, far above what would have been possible by chance alone. Carefully documenting the parrot’s progress, Pepperberg published one scientific paper after another. Two of Pepperberg’s students, Pam Banta and Denice Warren, come into the lab. Pam walks over for ritual nuzzling.
“Yellow!” says Alex. “Yellow! .” Pam is wearing a yellow T-shirt. Although Alex seldom calls people by name he clearly recognizes individuals, greeting members of his ” flock” and shying away from strangers. Born in captivity but not hand-raised, Alex retains some suspicion of humans. Pepperberg now has two young Grey parrots that were painstakingly raised by hand, and they may prove to be very cooperative.
Alex, by contrast, can be far from easy. He may refuse to answer questions, shouting “No!” and turning his back. He may repeat the wrong answer stubbornly or demand some other item: “Want corn!” The students tell, too, of one test in which Alex was asked to name, from six objects on a tray, the one that was green. Alex named the other five – everything but the desired answer – and then tipped the tray onto the floor. Bad attitude, in fact, may be the reason why he gets “only” 80 percent correct on his tests. But even his mischief is impressive.
Whenever Alex is left alone with a new student he will request, one by one, dozens of items from his list of toys and food while the student scrambles to provide them. To all appearances, Alex is checking to see if this new member of the “flock ” shares the same repertoire of sounds and meanings. If Alex knew the backgrounds of the assistants, he’d have good reason to check their repertoires. Indeed, Pepperberg herself has been classified under several fields. At Purdue she worked in the Dept. of Biological Sciences.
In 1984 she became a visiting assistant professor at northwestern University in the Anthropology Dept. In 1990, when the university of Arizona hired her as an associate professor in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she accepted a joint appointment in the Psychology Dept. Students working with her now in Tucson are from those two departments and from Neuroscience, linguistics, pre-med, speech-and-hearing, and education. Her lab is the scene of constant interaction among different disciplines.
The multi disciplinary feeling and constant lively debate are like a microcosm of Pepperberg’s field. Researchers trying to open two-way communication with animals are caught in the crossfire of a controversy that has been running for decades. On one side are the strict behaviorists, who suggest that animals have no real thought processes, no consciousness, no awareness of their own actions. At the other extreme are those who maintain that animals may indeed be thinking and that science should inquire what they are thinking about. Joining this far-reaching debate are psychologists, linguists, and philosophers who ask: What is awareness What is language Do things like “belief” and ” desire” really exist, even in humans The arguments continue, but the study of animal minds-now dignified with the name “cognitive ethology”-is gaining stature as a legitimate field.
Researchers have managed to open limited dialogues with various mammals: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, sea lions. And joining this cast of “smart” mammals on stage is one Grey parrot. “We haven’t gone as farms the chimpanzee or marine mammal studies,” says Pepperberg. “But up to this point Alex has performed as well as the chimps or dolphins.” No other researcher has taken bird communication to this level.
For Pepperberg the Grey parrot was a calculated choice as a promising study species. But parrots also represent the endangered wildlife of the tropics. “There are more than three hundred parrot species,” she says,” mostly in the tropics, and nearly one-fourth of those could be considered endangered in the wild. These are intelligent, adaptable birds, and they could probably survive alongside 21 st Century humanity given a chance.” But the cage-bird trade doesn’t give them a chance.” She favors legislation now being considered that would ban the import of wild birds. “Wild-caught parrots make inferior pets, and shocking numbers of wild parrots die in transport. If someone really has the time to devote to a pet parrot, the only responsible approach is to buy one that has been raised by a reputable breeder.
“If my research could affect public awareness,” she concludes, “I’d like people to realize that a parrot is not just a bundle of bright feathers. A parrot is a creature with mental capabilities beyond what we would have guessed-a creature that deserves respect. As civilized beings, we can’t go on blithely destroying the habitat and populations of wild parrots.” It is creative playtime in the lab. Alex and Irene are at the computer. A children’s counting game is on the screen, a dozen flying saucers on a blue background, four more enclosed in a band of yellow. “How many in yellow” Alex eyes the screen and shouts, “Foh-wurm,” while Pam and Denice applaud.
The students want to design a test based on this game but Pepperberg has doubts: It might be too easy. “We don’t do anything else at the computer yet. He’d know that the answer had to be a number. It would be better to mix these questions with another type.” She shows Alex a plastic letter K. “What sound, Alex” Is she teaching the bird to read “No,” says Pepperberg, as Alex grates out a series of “K” sounds in the background. “We ” re just seeing if he can learn to associate sounds with symbols.” She never drops the cautious objectivity, never goes beyond her data.
But a visitor can hardly resist the temptation to extrapolate. It’s just a decade now since science conceded parrot might link an object with a word. Now one parrot is not only naming objects but classifying them, counting them, and comparing them. Who knows what’s next This has all taken place in a setting and a language totally alien to the bird. How much more might a parrot “know” in the wild, in the abundant complexity of the rainforest, where its native intelligence would be abetted by native instinct, where it might learn directly from others of its own kind The answer to that may be beyond the reach of current science. But thanks to Irene Pepperberg and Alex, we can begin to appreciate the question.
Communication with Parrots.