Alex the African gray parrot, have you heard of him? Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s collaborator and test subject for 30 years during her research into animal psychology, notably that of birds, was this groundbreaking bird. Birds were not thought to be clever animals before she began her research with Alex (on account of their walnut-sized brains). In reality, the term “bird brain” was frequently used as a derogatory epithet for insanity. Dr. Pepperberg’s research, on the other hand, revolutionized the area by demonstrating the African gray parrot’s cognitive ability through a variety of cognitive tasks.
Alex had accumulated a variety of skills that were usually regarded to be above animal reasoning by the time he died in 2007. He had demonstrated that the intelligence of some birds is on par with that of dolphins and primates, who are commonly thought to be among the world’s smartest animals.
The Training of an African Gray Parrot
In June 1977, when he was around 12–13 months old, Pepperberg bought Alex (an abbreviation for “avian learning experiment”) from a pet store in Chicago. She had a store clerk choose him for her, so there would be no doubt that she had chosen a bird based on some shown unique talent. She intended to demonstrate that any bird could do the tasks she was preparing for them.
She began training him with the model/rival methodology, which she coined. Alex would watch two of his trainers engaging during this training. One of them would be the role model for the desired behavior, making them a competitor for the attention and reward of the other trainer. The two trainers would also trade places frequently to ensure that Alex understood that it was a collaborative effort. They were able to allow two-way communication with him in this way.
Dr. Pepperberg observed that as Alex’s knowledge grew, he would correct his trainers when they made mistakes in conversation. He would also practice words on his own, and in later years, he would occasionally serve as Pepperberg’s helper, acting as a model and rival to help teach other parrots in the lab.
Alex the Parrot’s Accomplishments
Alex had been taught to distinguish a wide range of colors, objects, materials, and behaviors, and he had a vocabulary of over 100 words with which to do so. He could count up to six quantities and knew at least 50 unique objects. It was even claimed that the parrot understood the notion of zero.
He could recognize objects that were different from those he had seen before because he had a clear knowledge of the words he used. For example, if Alex was shown a yellow plastic key, he could tell it apart from one made of metal based on color and material, but still classifying both as keys. He was asked questions like What color?, What matter?, and What shape? when shown an object, and he had a very high rate of accuracy with his responses.
Alex would get tired with the activities because the experiments required a lot of repetition for statistical considerations. It was at this point when his witty personality really shone through. He would frequently try to vary the exercises by purposefully giving erroneous answers or by answering Dr. Pepperberg’s questions with questions of his own. His capacity to understand and ask his own questions was revolutionary in and of itself, as he was the first (and only) non-human to do so.
When Alex asked an existential question regarding his own appearance, it was one of his most amazing moments. He’d been given a mirror and asked, “What color?” after examining himself for a few moments. ” He subsequently acquired the term “gray,” which is the color of his feathers, after six repetitions.
A Lasting Impression
Alex died unexpectedly on September 6, 2007, at the age of 31—much younger than a parrot in captivity’s normal lifespan. During his nightly goodbyes with Dr. Pepperberg, the last thing he was known to say was a few leaving remarks. “You be good, see you tomorrow,” he remarked when she put him in his cage. “I’m in love with you.”
The loss grieved Dr. Pepperberg and her colleagues, and Alex’s death prompted a series of tribute stories in major media such as The New York Times. His death, however, did not signal the end of their probe. Pepperberg’s research with other parrots has continued, and she is now working with two named Athena and Griffin.
Ornithologists have discovered that bird brains are more complicated than previously imagined thanks to Pepperberg’s studies with Alex. As a result of this revelation, scientists are now investigating the capabilities of different sorts of birds. Furthermore, the modeling strategies used to teach Alex and the other parrots have proven to be effective outside of the animal domain, particularly when educating youngsters with learning difficulties.