“You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”
These were the last words spoken by Alex, a 31 year old African Grey Parrot who, by the time of his death from unknown causes in 2007, had a confirmed vocabulary of more than 100 English words that he could apparently understand and use correctly, rather than merely ‘parroting’ them.
Alex was purchased in a pet store at the age of 1 by Irene Pepperberg, a researcher at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. She was Alex’s owner and trainer for over 30 years.
Pepperberg has published dozens of scientific papers about Alex’s verbal, mathematical and cognitive abilities, and the two have appeared on a wide variety of television programs and popular press stories. In the process, they have transformed people’s understanding of the mental abilities of non-human animals.
Besides apparently understanding the meanings of the words he uttered, Alex, whose name was an acronym for Avian Learning EXperiment, could also correctly count up to six (identifying the number of objects on a tray and correctly linking the number he said aloud to the written numeral). He could also identify colors, shapes and materials of various objects. And, occasionally, he could even coin new words to describe an unfamiliar object; he called an apple a “banerry” the first time he was presented with one, perhaps because its outside was the color of the more familiar cherry, and the inside the color of banana.
Pepperberg’s research remains controversial, with some skeptics maintaining that Alex’s apparent mastery of language revealed nothing more than a very sophisticated version of conditioned responses. Pepperberg says that is hard to reconcile with such findings as Alex’s 80% accuracy in counting objects. In her peer-reviewed papers, she has said that he seemed to have intelligence comparable to a five-year-old child, but emotional behavior more like a two-year-old.
When asked to summarize the impact of her three decades of parrot research, Pepperberg says “people think much more seriously about the intellectual abilities of these feathered creatures.” She says her work has influenced other groups who have since investigated the intelligence of other birds, including crows. “I like to think that being called a birdbrain is now a compliment.”
Source: Nature News