Interview with a Parrot 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. 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. 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.
As you may have heard, Alex, the celebrated African Grey parrot, died recently. He was 31. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University began working with Alex when he was little more than a year old, hoping to gain insights into avian intelligence. Her pioneering research revealed that Alex was no mere mimic: his skills in language and reasoning rivaled those of chimps and dolphins. (Pepperberg wrote an article for Scientific American describing her work with Alex, available here.) In 1996, former Scientific American editor Madhusree Mukerjee paid Alex a visit at Pepperberg's lab, then at the University of Arizona. Her report from that memorable encounter follows below.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.