[NetBehaviour] Parrot Proves It's No Birdbrain

marc marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Wed Jul 20 19:53:05 CEST 2005

*Parrot Proves It's No Birdbrain*

By Rachel Metz

At the ripe age of 29, Alex has mastered important tasks like counting 
to six, understanding that corn is yellow, and knowing the differences 
among a variety of shapes.

Call him a birdbrain if you must; he'll probably take it as a 
compliment. This is because Alex, an African gray parrot, is a prime 
example of birds' abilities to exhibit higher brain functions than 
humans usually give them credit for.

For the past 28 years, Alex has been under the care and tutelage of 
Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct associate professor of psychology at 
Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Pepperberg, who grew up 
with common budgerigar parakeets as company, began her work after seeing 
early episodes of Nova that showed language work performed with other 
types of animals.

Pepperberg said she decided to work with gray parrots partly because 
they're known for clear vocalizations that make them great talkers. She 
currently has three of the endangered birds as research subjects, 
including Alex.

"They don't have the same, 'Rawk! Polly want a cracker!' type of 
vocalizations," Pepperberg said. "They sound more like people."

Pepperberg and her students have taught Alex things using a technique 
called model/rival, which was originally developed by Dietmar Todt, a 
German expert in ethology, the study of animal behavior. The technique 
involves using a second person to demonstrate correct and incorrect 
behavior while Alex watches. For example, Pepperberg might give someone 
a piece of cork in response to them saying the word cork, but withhold 
it if they make any other noise.

Now, Alex can identify 50 different objects, and knows seven colors and 
five shapes. He understands concepts of same and different, and can even 
ask for certain objects that aren't physically present, Pepperberg said.


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