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One Smart Bird

Exactly how intelligent are birds? This is a question that’s still being explored, but the work of one scientist, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, may hold some answers. Dr. Pepperberg, an adjunct professor of psychology at Brandeis University and lecturer at Harvard University, has spent the last 30 years studying animal cognition and how it relates to parrots in particular.

Alex

Dr. Pepperberg acquired Alex, an African grey parrot, when he was one year old. For the next three decades, through Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research, Alex acquired a large vocabulary—more than 100 labels for different objects, colors, shapes, and quantities—the equivalent of a two-year-old child. He could count up to six and exhibited math skills considered advanced for animal cognition. This included the ability to recognize a “zero-like” concept—the first bird ever to show an understanding of the absence of a quantity. This concept is usually not understood by humans until the age of three. Alex could also use phrases like “I want X” and “Wanna go Y,” where “X” and “Y” were actual places or appropriate objects.

Alex’s amazing ability to recognize concepts showed a level of cognition never before demonstrated in birds. For those who believed that birds were only capable of mimicry, Alex’s achievements, including the ability to answer questions about objects, truly expanded the understanding of cognitive function in birds.

Model-Rival Technique

How was Alex able to learn these skills? Dr. Pepperberg used what is called the “model-rival technique,” a method that involves the use of two humans and a bird student. With the bird present, one of the humans acts like a trainer to the other human. The trainer gives instructions and rewards the human student for correct answers and corrects wrong answers. In this way, the human student acts as a model for the bird. The human student also acts as a rival to the bird, as the bird attempts to rival the student for the trainer’s attention.

Helping the Learning Disabled

The model-rival technique may have potential for teaching learning-disabled children, including autistic children, who have difficulty learning language and numerical concepts. Diane Sherman, PhD, has been using the model-rival technique with small groups of autistic children with promising results.

The Alex Foundation

Sadly, in September of 2007, Alex died of unknown causes at the age of 31. In addition to his many breakthroughs in animal cognition studies, Alex’s legacy includes the establishment of the Alex Foundation. Its goal is to support research of cognitive abilities in animals; encourage the responsible ownership of parrots; conserve and preserve parrots in the wild; and conduct veterinary research into the psychological diseases and care of these birds. For more information, visit the Alex Foundation at www.alexfoundation.org.