This Parrot Means What He Says
Research with one bird shows more sophisticated use of language than previously recorded
TUCSON, ARIZ. — IRENE PEPPERBERG holds a tray full of children's toys before her best student, Alex.
The colorful jumble of items would dazzle the eyes of anyone with a sense of play: an orange paper square, a yellow metal key, a blue plastic key, a five-cornered green wood slice, a red wool-fuzz ball, a black toy truck, and a purple plastic letter "R."
"What is rose [red-colored]?" she asks her charge.
And with a quick cock of his head, Alex responds correctly, "Wool!"
With an approving nuzzle from his teacher, Alex is rewarded with the red wool-fuzz ball. But that reward is destined not for the fat little hands of a child. Instead, it goes to the hard beak of an African Grey parrot who has learned to speak - not simply parrot - a very basic form of English.
Skeptics may roll their eyes. But anyone visiting Dr. Pepperberg's University of Arizona laboratory to watch Alex work cannot deny that something very unusual is happening.
Indeed, Pepperberg's 15 years of research with Alex is now beginning to gain recognition in many disciplines from conservation science to medicine and among educators looking for new training techniques for the developmentally disabled.
With his vocabulary of 90-plus words, Alex can label items by color, shape, and material. He can distinguish quantities of items up to six. When considering two objects, he can tell whether one object is bigger or smaller than another and what attribute is the same or different.
And, in his latest amazing accomplishment, Alex is learning to recognize the sounds of some letters of the alphabet and is beginning to, when shown these letters together, sound out words like a child learning to read.
"Nobody thought that a parrot could really learn to label an object," Pepperberg says. "Everybody knew that parrots could mimic sound, but to make that association between sound and an object.... Only people who had the birds as pets made such claims, there was no scientific evidence.
"On the tests that we've given him, he's performed at the same level as dolphins and chimpanzees," she says.
A skeptical visitor asks if this couldn't just be a sophisticated form of memorization. Pepperberg points to many bins of Alex's playthings and asks, "How could he memorize all this?"
So the visitor taps Alex's beak with a pen cap he's never seen before. "What color?" he's asked. "Blue," he croaks correctly from his perch on the back of a folding chair.
Raking through Alex's toys with her hand, Pepperberg explains that any one of these items can be the subject of queries about shape, color, size, and material. Memorization would not explain why Alex can correctly categorize them with an average accuracy of 80 percent.
Pepperberg's studies conclude that, in some limited way, Alex must be understanding questions put to him and offering answers that mean the same to him as they do to people.
Pepperberg's work "changes the whole way we think about parrots and other animals. It's very important," observes Donald R. Griffin, a professor emeritus at Rockefeller University in New York City and author of textbooks on animal thinking.
"Here's a bird that has learned to use English words in relatively meaningful ways. He seems to mean what he says ... and that is a real revolution, [because] there's a whole 20th-century tradition of minimizing animal thinking or fitting it into rather narrow mental categories like conditioning," he says.
Pepperberg says many scientists "go ballistic" over suggestions that there is anything more to the bird's cognitive abilities than the research shows. "Consciousness," for example, is something she steers clear of discussing.
"It's a real source of debate," Pepperberg says. "There are people who claim that `yes, the only way animals could do these types of tasks is if they were consciously thinking.' Other people say, `Well, yes, after you learn how to do multiplication tables you don't think about it, you just do it and maybe they're using some kind of process like that.' "
This kind of debate kept Pepperberg's research from wide acclaim until recently, when the growing body of her difficult-to-dispute findings became more widely known.
Indeed, Pepperberg's work had unconventional beginnings. As a Harvard chemical-physics doctoral student in the early 1970s, she saw three successive segments of the Nova television program dealing with animal communication and felt a "click" of intrigue that theoretical chemistry had never sparked.
So while finishing the chemistry degree she would never use, she started attending courses on animal behavior and studied the few research projects that dealt with parrot communication. She found nothing but failure in teaching the birds to truly communicate.
Perhaps because she came to the field of animal behavior fresh, without the traditional prejudices of psychology and ethology, she found the success that eluded others, say colleagues.
For $600, she bought Alex as a one-year-old in 1976 at a pet store and began her research, using a new training technique.
"Our techniques are based on what these birds probably do in the wild," Pepperberg says. "It's most likely that they learn their vocalizations from watching their peers and their parents." She teaches Alex by letting him watch her "teach" a person as his model for learning.
For example, with Alex in the room, the trainer will teach the other person the word for an object and praise and scold him for success or failure. Then, turning to Alex, the trainer will attempt to teach the same word, using praise or scolding in the same way.
Similarly, Alex is now being used as the model to train one of two new young African Grey parrots that have joined the research.
Further, she explains, to reinforce the meaning of what the bird is doing, she does not use food rewards. For example, when a bird learns to label an object, that object - not a peanut - is used as the reward.
Does it matter if a beautiful bird from the African rain forest can think at some level and speak?
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Charles Munn, a research zoologist with Wildlife Conservation International, a division of the New York Zoological Society. "I don't think Alex is special. He's just a run-of the-mill African Grey someone happened to pick up at random."
Mr. Munn, who has learned to understand the meanings behind some of the most common vocalizations of Amazon parrots in the South American wild, says Pepperberg's "work is putting parrots on the map, making people realize these birds are exciting."
When dolphins, chimpanzees, and whales became known for being sentient, they became popular theme animals for environmentalism. So too could parrots help sensitize the public to the twin threats that could make them extinct: deforestation and their capture for sale as pets.
Further, a Fresno, Calif., school for developmentally delayed children has adopted Pepperberg's modeling technique, seeing hope in her success in teaching a simple form of English to a bird that does not normally learn any form of human language and does not learn to use it easily.