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This Parrot Means What He Says

Research with one bird shows more sophisticated use of language than previously recorded

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 1992


IRENE PEPPERBERG holds a tray full of children's toys before her best student, Alex.

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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.