Or, You May Be Outwitted

For the last twenty years, the very impressively credited though unremarkably noded Dr. Irene Pepperberg has been working with Alex, an African grey parrot. Dr. Pepperberg is currently an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Associate Professor of Psychology, an Affiliate in the Program in Neuroscience all at the University of Arizona, and she regularly produces papers from the media lab at MIT. The parrot holds no degrees as of yet, but would likely put your two-year old child to shame.

He was discovered in a Chicago area petshop at the age of one, with no prior training in language, and, as animal rights activists would much later insist, no desire to get any. Dr. Pepperberg had him studying for his parrot-SATs in short order, and soon began to fall upon great discoveries vis-a-vis his rapidly expanding vocabulary and apparent ability to understand the words he used, not to mention several other developmental skills previously not imagined in anything the brain-size of which pales in comparison to a golf ball.

The ramifications of a parrot that does more than parrot touch on many disciplines of scientific study, not the least of which is linguistics and/or psycholinguistics, a field in which my own comprehension barely rivals that of a less-than-intelligent stoat. So please bear with me if I play fast and loose with the details in favor of establishing the broader concepts.

Many of you will be taking all of this with a grain of saltine, and rightly so. The research and conclusions drawn by Pepperberg et al., as well as the methodology, draw a significant degree of criticism, and even Pepperberg admits that solid proof isn't easy to come by.

Le Mot Juste

According to this avian advocate, her team has packed an incredible amount of information into that relatively tiny space. Alex can identify at least thirty-five objects from wood to water to walnuts and has over a hundred words in his vocabulary, rivaling many toddlers and at least one head of state.

He has "yes" and "no" down fairly well, and is likely to tell you to "come here" should he desire your attention.

Skeptics among you will say, "it's no good randomly blurting out 'come here' and calling that a sign of intelligence. Unless the bird can tell you what it wants when you get there."

Which it might.

Polly want a cracker. No not that one. THAT one.

Here's where it starts to get creepy. When shown two differently sized and colored keys, and asked various questions about them, Alex can correctly distinguish and respond. "How many?" the lab tech will ask. "Two," speaks the parrot. "Which is bigger?" "Green," he responds, in this example, and is correct. He can also make selections based on hue, shape, variation, etc.

That he answers correctly despite different wording or question order shows comprehension, Pepperberg claims. To answer the question, "what's different?" with "color" requires a linguistic understanding as well as real thought process. Alex has to "understand" what "different" means as a word, and how it applies to the presented objects. He then must assess them to formulate a response based on his given vocabulary. The parrot would seem to make a choice. Check out http://www.webofstories.com/browse/AlexTheParrot.htm for a little demonstration.

I do not know if it's simply the parrot-tone, but the way he answers sometimes sounds as if he's accusing the technicians of being completely thick, though that of course may by a fallout of further testing. For instance--Alex asks for a cashew. Apparentely he will do this without prompting, and the desire is not always for cashews. At any rate--he asks for a cashew. You, clever bastard that you are, pick up something that obviously is NOT a cashew. 'What are you, an idiot?' not being amongst his known phrases, he will most of the time say "no," and repeat his original request.

These unprompted, spontaneous communications demonstrate not only your effectiveness at irritating parrots, but the parrot's realization that the labels he's got in his head for certain objects aren't transferable. It ain't like going down South, ordering a Coke, and being asked what kind, which confuses the hell out of everyone. To an African Grey Parrot, there's only one Cashew, and nothing like the real thing.


in addition to his language abilities, Alex the Parrot has gone as far as anyone can go in the realm of object permanence. By achieving level six--which I'll explain momentarily--he outdoes not only cats, but monkeys, Ring Doves, hamsters, and chickens. Unless you're an infant, he does not outdo you, but I wouldn't recommend trying to take him in any shell game scams. Here's why.

At about two or three weeks--sometimes as soon as the parrot opens its eyes--an African Grey is already at level two, which means they can track an object as it moves. At this point on-lookers should bet against the parrot, unless your cup-and-ball game involves only the ball.

You've got about four good months to take advantage, as at fourteen to sixteen weeks Mr. Parrot will have done with level five, and be able to retrieve completely hidden objects. It isn't until just under six months, at level six, that he'll be able to figure out you're palming the ball. If you have two shells, put it under one, then secretly move it to another, he'll know to check it out. Moreover, if you simply disappear the ball entirely, Alex will know he's been cheated and might decide to just go for the eyes. They've tried it on him--he gets very agitated.

Do not attempt to mindfuck the parrot.

Meanwhile, your cat, stuck back at level five, will not catch on--another reason not to trust it with the company payroll.

Back off, man. I'm a scientist.

So you still don't believe. You remember all those stories about Clever Hans, and have seen one too many flea circuses. You're wise to all the grifts. Dr. Pepperberg is too, and has her team conduct its experiments as carefully as possible to avoid the pitfalls.

Cuing is the danger we're discussing here, as far as the linguistic elements are concerned. Questions asked in the same order, or in identical tones of voice, even inadvertent gestures from the trainer could have Alex learning how to cheat rather than think--like human students. For that reason, Pepperberg comes as close to double blind as she can. Questions are selected at random, written and presented by different trainers on different days, spontaneously reworded. They give no chances for the parrot to memorize categories or orders, keeping it on its claws.

That being said, it's very hard to maintain the purity of the environment. Part of human speech naturally involves accordant gestures, most of which are made unconsciously. Hence they're hard to prevent, and often hard to spot when they're not being prevented. You try thinking about all the things you never think about while simultaneously doing something else. See how far you get.

So, can Alex the Parrot get into Harvard?

Alex won't be writing speeches for the President anytime soon--he squawks "nucLEar," so that career path remains closed. But his intelligence is such that they are now teaching him how to read. Take a "s" in print on the page, he says "sss." Add an "h" to it, he gives a parrot-approximation of "shh." He recognizes the code enough to take a stab at it.

Before Alex, none of this was thought possible in avian species. Comprehension at this level was reserved for humans and the Great Apes at best. In Pepperberg's words: "although we cannot claim that the mechanisms that Alex uses are identical to those of humans, the data suggest that a non-human, nonprimate, nonmammalian subject has a level of competence that, in a chimpanzee, would be taken to indicate a human level of intelligence."*

The notion has ruffled the feathers of many a linguist, especially those that hold with Noam Chomsky's idea about "speech organs" and what really separates us from the animals. If there is a speech organ in the brain, this parrot might seem to have something similar, and we're getting less special as a species. Not to mention what it says about us that we seem to have so much trouble learning Parrot.

Pepperberg freely admits that she cannot scientifically prove that Alex "has language." But the evidence suggests he has many of the powers of your local human two year old.

So yes, he can get into Harvard, but only if his parents went there.

Crackers to:

There's not much to add to Scriberlus' exhaustive write-up on Alex other than the following: Alex's name is in fact an acronym for Avian Learning EXperiment. And that sadly, this thrity year experiment ended four years ago due to an unpredictable heart malfunction. Alex did not suffer; similar deaths have occured in birds younger than Alex. His pathology lab results showed no abnormalities in cholesterol or anything else.

Dr. Pepperberg, who discovered Alex in a Chicago pet shop, is continuing her research at Harvard and Brandeis University with two other young African Grey parrots, Arthur and Griffin. You may download footage of Griffin on Animal Planet's "Extraordinary Animals" here. Dr. Pepperberg has made numerous media appearances talking about talking birds.

RIP Alex (1977 - September 6, 2007).

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