Dot Schwarz tells us more about one of the most intelligent Parrots of all time, Alex.
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Alex (1976 – 6 September 2007) was an African Grey Parrot (Pssitacus erithacus) and the subject of a thirty-year (1977–2007) experiment by Dr Irene Pepperberg in various universities. When Alex was about one-year old, Pepperberg bought him at a pet shop. The name “Alex” was a backronym for A-vian L-anguage EX-periment, or avian learning experiment.
Before Pepperberg’s work with Alex, most of us involved with Parrots – hobbyists, breeders and scientists – believed that only primates and cetaceans (whales and dolphins) could solve complex problems of language and communication.
Bird brain implied that a bird’s responses were instinctual and that no reasoning was involved. Parroting someone’s words meant repeating them without understanding their meaning.
However, Alex’s accomplishments made many aviculturists realise that birds could and did reason on a simple level. Pepperberg considers that Alex’s intelligence was on a level similar to dolphins and great apes. In her opinion, Alex showed the intelligence of a five-year-old child, in some of the tasks he had mastered.
He had not even reached his full potential by the time he died. She also believes that Alex possessed the emotional level of a human two-year-old when he died. Owners of pet Parrots who know what Alex achieved and what they observe daily with their own birds, agree with her.
Irene Pepperberg chooses Alex
There is an element of chance in the story of Irene and Alex. While writing her PhD on Chemical Physics at Harvard she started watching a popular TV series Nova on Animal intelligence. The programmes coved apes and cetaceans – all mammals.
One particular episode on “Why Do Birds Sing?”, showing how they learned their songs. Irene, having had a talking Parakeet as a child, wondered why no one had put the two ideas together and tried to use a talking bird in an animal-human communication study.
Her PhD finished, she switched her interests from chemistry to Parrots. In an interview, she told us why she chose to work with Grey Parrots.
My proposal was simple: I said I wanted to replicate the linguistic and cognitive skills that had been previously achieved with chimps in a Grey Parrot, an animal with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, but one that could talk.
My confidence that I could do it was based on two things. The first was my experience growing up with talking birds, and the sense that they are indeed smart. Second were the facts that Greys, like apes, live a long time, and that their social groups are large and complex. Both these factors were thought to account for at least some of the brainpower that apes so obviously possess. Why not a similar kind of brainpower for Greys?
There was not great enthusiasm for her project. Not many scientists considered she would demonstrate cognition and communication with an ordinary off-the-shelf Parrot. She chose a one-year old Grey from a pet shop and his name underlines that he was a laboratory specimen. A-nimal LE-arning X-periment – Alex.
Irene Pepperberg claimed that within 3 years she ‘d have taught Alex labels for objects and that he would be able to discriminate colours and shapes and material (called what matter?) in the tests. She succeeded. Pepperberg affirms after hundreds and hundreds of hours watching, noting and listening to Alex – he indeed knew what he was saying.
Pepperberg used a humane form of training known as the “model/rival method,” which relies upon competition between two rivals for the reward of playing with an object when it is correctly identified.
Alex’s cognitive abilities blossomed under this social reward-system. Pepperberg was very strict in her effort to avoid replicating the “Clever Hans” scenario.
In the late 19th century in Germany, Clever Hans a brown gelding would tap out the answers with his hoof to simple sums. It was discovered that Hans was responding to the trainer’s unconscious body language. Hans could not do sums if the questioner was out of sight.
To avoid this, Pepperberg never allowed the assistants who trained Alex to test him. Further, she tested Alex using many different objects at the same time, so he couldn’t anticipate the correct answer based on a small subset of possibilities.
She even tested him using novel objects — those he had never seen before. This technique allowed Pepperberg to succeed with Alex where other scientists had failed in facilitating two-way communication with Parrots.
In later years, Alex could sometimes act as one of Pepperberg’s assistants by acting as the “model” or “rival” in helping to teach a fellow Parrot in the lab. Alex sometimes practiced words when he was alone. A habit that we observe with our pet birds if we hide behind a door and listen.
In 1999, Irene Pepperberg published an academic book after 20 years of working with Alex. The Alex Studies. His accomplishments by that time were astonishing and continued until his untimely death in 2007.
He could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to eight; he could distinguish seven colours and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”, and absence.
Alex had a vocabulary of over 100 labels and appeared to understand what he said. When Alex was presented with an object, say a three- cornered green wooden block, he could identify its shape, colour, or material, he could label it correctly. He knew that a key was a key whatever size or colour it was. And he could answer correctly when asked about size ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller.’
Alex answered test questions correctly with an accuracy of 67% to100%. Irene points out that incorrect responses were like that of a toddler who gets bored.
Pet Parrot use of language
Parrot owners report that their birds often use language meaningfully but these are anecdotes and not accepted generally as scientific proof. Here are three examples.
The first one had told me by a vet at Steve Martin’s ranch in Florida, where we were fellow students at a training workshop. The vet had euthanized a Parrot in the hospital room of his surgery. Next day when he entered, an Amazon in a cage said, ‘Not me next.’
My friend Jayne Boulton, cleaning Ronnie, a Grey’s cage knocked against the bird. ‘Oh, be careful,’ said Ronnie who had heard but never been taught that word.
Paula Feldman is an English professor. Coming home one evening, she asked her Parrot who had been caged all day: ‘How are you, Rachel?’ the Grey replied, ‘Incarcerated.’ A word she’d heard Paula use and now applied in the correct context.
Anecdotes of Alex’s intelligence
When Alex had to stay overnight at the vet’s office for the first time, he pleaded with Pepperberg as she left: “I’m sorry, come here, wanna go back.”
Pepperberg recounts many anecdotes of Alex’s extraordinary abilities. I particularly liked this one. In December 1980 when Kathy Davidson (one of the laboratory students) took him to the washroom, Alex noticed the mirror for the first time; He cocked his head back and forth a few times to get a fuller look, and said, “What’s that?”
“That’s you,” Kathy answered. “You’re a Parrot.”
Alex looked again and then said. “What colour?”
“Grey. You’re a Grey Parrot, Alex.”
And that’s how Alex learned the colour grey.
Was the question pure chance or was Alex asking something that implies a lot of awareness. Alex coined words. When shown a birthday cake, he knew a word for bread and for delicious so said, ‘yummy bread.’
He made up a word for an apple and called it a banerry which Irene believes was him combining banana and cherry, two fruits he recognised.
During one training session, Alex repeatedly asked for a nut, a request that Pepperberg refused (work comes first). Finally, Alex looked at her and said, slowly, “Want a nut. Nnn . . . uh . . . tuh.”
“I was stunned,” Pepperberg writes. “It was as if he were saying, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?’”
Alex had leaped from being trained to sound out single phonemes to sound out a complete word — a major leap in cognitive processing.
Perching near a veterinary assistant, Alex repeatedly enquired whether she wants a nut, wants corn, wants water. Frustrated by the noes, he asked, “Well, what do you want?” Mimicry? I don’t think so.
Alex and Irene
During their years together their interactions evolved into a close, loving and collaborative relationship. ‘He was my colleague,’ says Irene. She’s described her relationship with Alex in a book for the general reader, Alex and Me which she wrote a year after his death.
Alex could show jealousy of the other Parrots who were added to the laboratory. Sometimes he plucked. Was this a result of Irene leaving the laboratory on outside trips and going abroad?
Concept of none or zero
Once, Alex was given several different coloured blocks (two red, three blue, and four green—similar to the picture above). Pepperberg asked him, “What colour three?” expecting him to say ‘blue’.
However, Alex had been asked this question before, he seemed to have become bored or grumpy. He answered “five!” This kept occurring until Pepperberg said “Fine, what colour five?” Alex replied “none”. This suggests that Parrots, like children, get bored.
It was particularly interesting, however, because he had transferred his use of the label “none” from responding to the absence of similarity or difference to the absence of a set of objects—a zero-like concept.
He also seemed to manipulate Irene into asking the question he wished to answer. Sometimes, Alex answered the questions incorrectly, despite knowing the correct answer, by giving all the wrong answers and repeating them, carefully avoiding the correct response…something he couldn’t do simply by chance.
Preliminary research seemed to indicate that Alex could transpose the concept of four blue objects (balls of wool) on a tray to four notes from a piano. Pepperberg was also training him to recognize “4” as “four”.
Alex also showed some comprehension of personal pronouns; he used different language when referring to himself or others, indicating a concept of “I” and “you”.
In July 2005, Pepperberg reported that Alex understood the concept of zero. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that; but if there was no difference between the objects, he said “none”, which meant that he understood the concept of nothing or zero.
In July 2006, Pepperberg discovered that Alex’s perception of optical illusions was similar to human perception.
Alex died on 6 September 2007, at the age of 31. Alex’s death shocked us all. An African Grey can live to 50 or 60 years.
The Alex Foundation posted the pathology results on October 4:
Alex died quickly. He had a sudden, unexpected event associated with arteriosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”). It was either a fatal arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke, which caused him to die suddenly with no suffering. There was no way to predict his demise.
Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were: “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” These were the same words that he would say every night when Pepperberg left the lab. How much he understood of those concepts open to interpretation. I choose to believe that he understood what he said.
Sceptics of Pepperberg’s findings, consider Alex’s communications as operant conditioning. There is some debate over whether he simply imitated his teacher.
Dr Herbert Terrace, who worked with chimpanzees, says he thinks Alex performed by rote rather than using language; he calls Alex’s responses “a complex discriminating performance”, adding that in every situation, “there is an external stimulus that guides his response.”
However, we know that Alex was able to talk to and perform for anyone involved in the project as well as complete strangers. Alex’s achievements have not been fully replicated, so they are not ‘proven’ in scientific terms.
Her work with subsequent Parrots covers a number of different topics than those she studied with Alex.
He’s left a significant legacy—not only have he and Irene Pepperberg changed our views of the capabilities of avian minds, but they have forever changed our perception of the term “bird brains.”
To say that he was the world’s most influential Parrot who ever lived is not an exaggeration. What did Alex teach us? That a Parrot’s understanding of what he says and does goes far beyond mimicry.
Irene Pepperberg, writes, “The subject of language has always been a contentious topic, scientifically but also emotionally. For both some scientists and laypersons, spoken language has long been held sacrosanct as uniquely human.”
Pepperberg has never claimed that Alex uses language in a human fashion. But the two-way communications code developed between bird and researchers and later on the other Greys who joined the lab works.
In writing about how Alex lived, and the day-to-day workings of her lab, Pepperberg may have to confront fresh criticism. An important question arises. Alex showed the cognitive skills of a young child. He could say “sorry” in the correct context.
Was it justified to confine him for years in a laboratory situation with no flight, no fresh air, obliging him to answer questions over and over again to produce statistical results, although he could act “ornery” and refuse to cooperate?
True. Alex did not have the life of a free-living Parrot but in terms of stimulus, enrichment and human affection he was richly compensated. His environment was more similar to that of a children’s pre-school than a lab, and he had human interaction 10-12 hrs/day, more than most companion animals.
Alex was a celebrity of world class. There are still critics who insist that thirty years as a non-flighted experimental subject was too high a price. Meanwhile, supporters of Pepperberg, who continues her research with other Greys, remind critics that we’d have far less inkling of Parrot intelligence without Alex’s contribution.
Irene Pepperberg is continuing her research with other Parrots. Sadly, funding is still a problem.
I asked Dr Pepperberg about the present birds she works with and if they equalled Alex and she said. “We are doing very different things with Griffin and Athena, so making direct comparisons is not fair. Griffin, for example, has passed the “marshmallow test”, waiting 15 minutes for a better treat. He’s also done more work on optical illusions, and studies on reasoning by exclusion, things we never did with Alex. We have not, however, tried to replicate Alex’s number work with Griffin.”
Dot: Is your work with Grey intelligence now finally accepted by the sceptics?
Irene: Well…some colleagues still are sceptical; others have accepted our data
Dot: Do you believe (as I do) that you and Alex changed the way in which Parrots are perceived? And her answer was ‘yes.’
The legacy that Alex left me was to deepen my appreciation of Parrots’ sensitivity and intelligence and if we insist on keeping them in our homes to provide sufficient enrichment and stimulation for their curious lively minds.
The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots, – I.M. Pepperberg. Harvard University Press 1999
Alex and Me – – Irene Pepperberg (Harper Collins 2008)
You can see Alex on YouTube. Here are a couple of fascinating clips; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yGOgs_UlEc
If you want to donate to the ongoing research: www.alexfoundation.org
For lots of stimulating toys for your African Grey Parrots please click here.