Feb 20 2009
Alex & Me is the story of Dr. Pepperberg’s relationship with Alex a “brainy” African grey parrot, how she acquired him, how she taught him and how he taught her.
In her lab Dr. Pepperberg used a model/rival training technique to teach Alex. In it, two trainers take turns asking each other about an object, “What is this?” “Paper.” “What color is this?” “Blue.” Then they would ask Alex.
Alex was indeed brainy. He learned quickly and adapted what he learned to fit new situations. As his lessons progressed he showed everyone that he had a commanding personality. I laughed to read how he broke in new students by demanding everything he could think of, “Want nut. Want corn. Wanna go shoulder.” The students had to run around and provide what he wanted because it was part of the training.
Eventually Dr. Pepperberg acquired other African grey parrots for the study and used the same training techniques. She also tried to have Alex teach them. This was OK with Alex but he always had to be top parrot so he was as bossy with the other birds as he was with the students. When a younger parrot named Griffin faltered during training, Alex would answer for him or tell him to pronounce the answer more clearly, “Say better!” Sometimes Alex would butt in and quickly give the wrong answer just to throw Griffin off.
African greys can live 70 years so it was surprising and very sad when Alex died suddenly at only 31 years old. Who knows what heights he could have reached had he lived.
In his short life Alex changed the way we think about bird intelligence and our ability to communicate with other species. Humans aren’t as separate as we thought. As Dr. Pepperberg says, “Alex taught us that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature.”
(Click on the photo of the book cover to read excerpts or buy it at Amazon.com)