Alex – the story of a smart bird
Alex was no “bird brain” idiot! Although he had feathers, a beak and claws, Alex the African Grey parrot (Psittacus eithacus) spent 30 years astounding scientists with his intelligence.
The study subject of Prof. Irene Pepperberg, Alex was raised in captivity and trained in a range of cognitive and verbal tasks. The idea behind the original experiments conducted by Pepperberg was to prove that animals other than humans and apes were capable of higher mental processes. At the time, in the late 70’s, research into animal intelligence had only just begun. Animal intelligence was a hotly debated topic with a lot of opposition claiming that the results from ape and dolphin studies were fabricated or false. There was a lot of opposition to the idea that animals may be able to think and feel just like humans.
Which is why, when Irene Pepperberg bought Alex from a pet shop inChicago, she was embarking upon a risky project. The Alex study, which stands for Avian Language Experiment, ended up lasting over 30 years up until Alex’s untimely death in 2007. The study resulted in groundbreaking papers published in journals such as Nature and Animal Cognition.
So what made Alex such an extraordinarily smart bird? The simple answer is: nothing. Alex was not a parrot Einstein or Hawking, and Pepperberg ended up having several other parrot test subject that did very well in their own studies. What made Alex so very special is that he was the first of his kind. He was the first ever non-mammal to show the world that humans aren’t the only smart ones to occupy this planet.
The short answer: smarter than you’d think. In her later published works Irene Pepperberg has stated that Alex probably had the intelligence equal to or greater than most great apes and dolphins, and on the same level as that of a 5 year old child.
She came to these conclusions after many hours of exhausting work training and teaching Alex, this ordinary bird, to communicate in a way she could assess: in English. During training Irene taught Alex words, numbers and colours. By the end of his life Alex knew more than 100 words and could identify more than 50 different objects. But what set him apart from any old parroting parrot is that Alex knew the meaning of the words he spoke. When faced with an object he could describe its shape, size and colour, even if the object was completely new to him. One day, while doing some basic exercises Alex asked “What colour Alex?”. After being told “grey” only 6 times, he learned concept of a whole new colour.
Apart from language abilities, Pepperberg serendipitously discovered that Alex also possessed an affinity for mathematics. She had previously trained him to identify the roman numbers 1-8, and was amazed one day when he seemed to come up with the concept of adding all on his own. After doing some further experiments Pepperberg determined that not only could Alex count and add, he also had a concept of “zero”, something no other animal has ever shown.
Alex was a smart mischievous and affectionate bird, much like a human toddler both in cognitive ability but also in temperament. If he got tired of a training session, he would state “Wanna go back!” to his trainer until they returned him to his cage. If he was acting up and a researcher got irritated, he would say “I’m sorry” to diffuse the situation.
The last time Irene Pepperberg ever saw her avian colleague alive was a September night in 2007. As she put Alex back in his cage for the night he looked at her, said “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” These were the same words Alex said to Pepperberg every night. They were the last words he was ever to speak. The next morning, Irene found Alex dead in his cage.
An autopsy determined that Alex had likely died from a sudden and unpredictable heart attack. His life was cut short; at 31, he was still only a middle aged parrot. African grey’s tend to live to 60. A short life, but a good one; Alex left a legacy behind him.
Were he looking down from a leafy branch in bird heaven, I am sure Alex would be proud. He was a part of a revolution, redefining animal intelligence. His impact has resonated through the scientific community and continues to drive research today. Thanks to Alex, research is now being conducted into the intelligence of animals other than apes and dolphins. And boy, are they smart!
For a look at Alex and Irene Pepperberg in action, follow this link:
Pepperberg, I. M., & Pepperberg, I. M. (2009). The Alex studies: cognitive and communicative abilities of grey parrots. Harvard University Press.
Pepperberg, I. M. (1987). Evidence for conceptual quantitative abilities in the African grey parrot: Labeling of cardinal sets. Ethology, 75(1), 37-61.
Pepperberg, I. M. (1987). Acquisition of the same/different concept by an African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus): Learning with respect to categories of color, shape, and material. Animal Learning & Behavior, 15(4), 423-432.
Pepperberg, I. M. (1994). Numerical competence in an African gray parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108(1), 36.