This is the article in the Sept/Oct 1991 Audubon magazine for those of
you who are interested in reading it but can't get that back issue.
BTW the typo's will be mine...
At first sight Alex appears out of place, somebody's pet brought in for
the day and plopped down in a corner of the modern research laboratory
at the University of Arizona. But the impression is wrong. Alex is the
research. An African Grey, Psittacus Erithacus, he lacks the gaudy
greens and yellows of many species. Despite his silky sheen and crimson
tail feathers, he seems duller than the average parrot. Perched on the
back of a metal folding chair with newspapers unceremoniously spread
underneath, he shifts his feet nervously and turns an owlish eye toward
anyone who approaches.
"Alex, how many?" A researcher holds up a purple metal key and a larger
green plastic key. The parrot stares, turning his head slowly: The
question hangs for fifteen silent seconds. Why expect an answer? Doesn't
"to parrot" mean "to mimic mindlessly"?
But then the parrot says, "Two."
The same two keys are held up with a different question. "Which is
bigger?" Again the parrot stares, pauses, then says, "Green key." Next
is a wooden Popsicle stick. "What matter?" Again the long pause, again
a correct answer: "Wood."
Getting the stick as a reward, Alex splinters it in his massive beak.
It's strange to watch this bird perform---especially strange for anyone
with a background in traditional science. For years the assumption had
been that "talking" birds are nothing but mimics, attaching no meaning
to their "words." But this parrot seems to crush that assumption as
easily as he crushes Popsicle sticks. Alex is impressive---and so is
the scientist who trained him.
Irene Pepperberg was well on her way to earning a Ph.D in chemical
physics from Harvard when, in 1973, her professional interest began to
shift toward animals. The NOVA programs on public service television
provided the spark: It was the first time, she says, that TV had shown
wild animals as they really were and had suggested scientific studies
of them were worthwhile. Especially compelling were programs on animal
communication: voices of birds attempts to teach sign language to
chimpanzees. "Suddenly," Pepperberg says, "mathematical modeling of the
reaction pathways of molecules seemed a lot less exciting than trying to
understand communication in animals."
Zoologists at harvard advised her against switching majors. "Since
I was so close to earning my degree, they said I should go ahead and
complete my doctoral work. The Ph.D was considered a kind of 'union
card,' and they claimed it would be easier to change fields once I had
the degree." Continuing to work forty hours a week on chemistry, she
spent an additional forty reading everything relevant to animal mental
behavior and communication. By the time she'd finished her official
education in chemical physics she had an unofficial education in a very
different field---and an idea about how to put it to use. Inspired by the
efforts to teach sigh language to chimps and other primates, Pepperberg
began to think about similar projects with birds.
"Most people felt that the brain structure of birds wouldn't allow
for much intelligence," she says, "or that the striatal area in birds
couldn't handle information as well as the cortex in mammals. But a
different brain type didn't have to be fundamentally inferior. Birds had
done well in experiments with problem-solving based on numbers. Otto
Koehler had ravens, jackdaws and Grey parrots that could match numbers of
spots up to eight. Pastore's canaries could pick out the third item from
a series. Logler had an African Grey parrot trained on numbers up to
"In all these tests the birds 'responded' by picking a certain item.
There was no vocal response. In the 1940s and 1950s a psychologist named
Mowrer tried to teach parrots to use words for objects, and that effort
failed. But I thought it should be possible to teach a bird to use at
least a few vocal labels. The vocal behavior of birds is such a rich
subject. Some individual march wrens, for example, will use hundreds
of different songs, and a lot is known about how some birds learn their
songs in different context---suggesting that they attach some meaning to
the sounds. So why not see if those meanings could be attached to
Her Ph.D work complete, Pepperberg wound up in Indiana on the academic
periphery of Purdue University. Her husband had a job there; she did not.
But Purdue agreed to let her use lab space if she would raise the funds
for her research. She designed her own study and, in June 1977, bought
Alex, a thirteen-month-old grey parrot chosen at random in a Chicago
"The Grey parrot was the logical species," she says. "It had done so
well with numbers in Logler's tests. Besides, if you think about wild
parrots, they live in social groups. Most are in tropical forests, where
the foliage is dense, and they might need complex vocal signals to stay
Pepperberg's logic sounds simple in retrospect. At the outset, however,
launching her study was far from easy. She wrote grant proposals, but
no one was interested in funding an offbeat "talking bird" experiment. So
she scraped up used equipment, enlisted volunteer help, and endured the
mild put-downs of other scientists.
Within a few months it appeared Alex was catching on; within a couple
of years it was beyond doubt. In a paper entitled "Functional Vocaliza-
ions by an African Grey Parrot" published in 1981, Pepperberg reported
Alex could identify more than thirty objects by name, shape, and color;
he had averaged 80 percent accuracy over some two hundred tests. This
was a breakthrough, the first solid evidence that a bird could attach
meanings to sounds, labels to objects.
But the experiments went on from there.
"OKAY, ALEX, BACK to the chair." It's a rule of the lab: On the
countertop, the floor, or someone's shoulder, Alex can clown around
or request whatever he wants, but when he sits on the back of the metal
chair, he has to work. "Alex, what's this?" "Rrrock!" says Alex. Irene
Pepperberg hands him the rock, which he turns over in his bill a couple
of times before dropping it on the floor
Next question: "What color?" Alex eyes the blue toy truck and reaches
for it. Pepperberg pulls it away. "No. Tell me what color?" Alex pauses
and then says, "Want a nut." Pepperberg speaks sharply and turns away:
"No! Bad parrot! Pay attention. What color?" Finally he gets it out
("Blhoo"), and gets to play with the truck.
Then he has a request of his own: "Want pah-ah." "Better!" says
Pepperberg "Say it better." Alex tries again. "Want pah-ssdah." "Okay,
that's pretty good," says Pepperberg, and hands him a piece of raw
pasta. He crunches it hard, sending a shower of fragments to join the
the accumulation of crushed shredded-wheat squares, Popsicle sticks,
and grapes on the newspaper below.
Then Pepperberg holds up three spools of different sizeds and colors.
"Which is smaller?"
Show Alex a paper triangle and ask, "What shape?" and he'll say,
"Three-corner." Show him five Popsicle sticks dyed red and ask, "What
color?" and he'll say, "Rose." Then ask, "How many?" and he'll say,
"Five." He is clearly responding to the question itself, as well
as to the objects. He understands "different" and "same" and can answer
questions about relationships: Show him a blue-dyed cork and blue key and
ask, "What's the same?" he will answer, "Color." Show him two identical
squares of rawhide and ask, "What's different?" and he will say, "None."
Substitute a pentagon for one square, and he will answer, "Shape."
To do these things Alex must understand the question, analyze several
qualities, compare them, and search his vocabulary; he is processing
information on several levels. None of this is simple memorization. On
questions of size or color or shape, "different" or "same," Alex scores
slightly better with new objects than with familiar ones; novelty seems
to focus his attention.
It's an incredible performance for a bird. But Alex did not reach
this level by accident. Every detail of his training and testing has
been carefully considered.
For example, Alex regularly nuzzles and scratches with Pepperberg and
all the student assistants. This is essential. The parrot is highly
social and needs this interplay. If it felt no bond with researchers,
it would never cooperate. On the other hand major problems could result
if the bird felt a strong "pair bond" with one person---parrots can be
violently jealous about their "mates." Thus, assistants were brought in
to interact with Alex from the beginning.
Alex does not seem to know the meaning of "bad parrot" or "good
parrot" or "pay attention" but tones of approval and disapproval are
enough to influence him. Another factor to reinforce learning:
appropriate rewards. Past experiments with birds had rewarded "correct
behavior" with food. But when Alex names an object correctly he is
rewarded with the object itself; he may examine it, scratch himself
with it, or chew it for several minutes before he loses interest and
The language training rests on a technique developed by German
biologist Dietmar Todt, who found the Grey parrot learned phrases most
quickly from two trainers: One formed a bond with the parrot; the other
acted as both "rival" and model. For the parrot to gain the attention
of its "mate," it learned to mimic simple phrases used repeatedly
by the model/rival. In Pepperberg's study no one person took the role
of Alex's mate. Trainers took turns "training" each other to name objects
while Alex watched and listened; eventually he joined in.
The initial aim was to teach Alex to use words for objects, something
no bird had been proven to do before. Next the focus moved to categories
of color and shape, to numbers, to concepts such as similarity and
difference. At every stage Alex was subjected to rigorous tests. The
results had to be above question---beyond any suggestion the bird was
was receiving cues from the researchers. Tests were administered by
students who had not taken part in the training. Pepperberg kept score
of Alex's answers but sat with her back turned, unable to see the objects
being presented. Each response had to be clear enough to be understood.
Alex would get no hints, no leniency.
But as the tests became more complex, Alex continued to score around
80 percent accuracy in his answers, far above what would have been
possible by chance alone. Carefully documenting the parrot's progress,
Pepperberg published on scientific paper after another.
Two of Pepperberg's students, Pam Banta and Denice Warren, come into
the lab. Pam walks over for ritual nuzzling. "Yellow!" says Alex.
"Yellow!." Pam is wearing a yellow T-shirt. Although Alex seldom calls
people by name he clearly recognizes individuals, greeting members of
of his "flock" and shying away from strangers. Born in captivity but no
hand-raised, Alex retains some suspicion of humans.
Pepperberg now has two young Grey parrots that were painstakingly
raised by hand, and they may prove to be very cooperative. Alex, by
contrast, can be far from easy. He may refuse to answer questions,
shouting "No!" and turning his back. He may repeat the wrong answer
stubbornly or demand some other item: "Want corn!" The students tell,
too, of one test in which Alex was asked to name, from six objects
on a tray, the on that was green. Alex named the other five---and
then tipped the tray onto the floor. Bad attitude, in fact, may be
the reason why he gets "only" 80 percent correct on his tests.
But even his mischief is impressive. Whenever Alex is left alone
with a new student he will request, one by one, dozens of items from
his list of toys and food while the student scrambles to provide them. To
all appearances, Alex is checking to see if this new member of the "flock"
shares the same repertoire of sounds and meanings.
If Alex knew the backgrounds of the assistants, he'd have good
reason to check their repertoires. Indeed, Pepperberg herself has
been classified under several fields. At purdue she worked in the Dept.
of Biological Sciences. In 1984 she became a visiting assistant professor
at Northwestern University in the Anthropology Dept. In 1990, when the
University of Arizona hired her as an associate professor in the Dept.
of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she accepted a joint appointment
in the Psychology Dept. Students working with her now in Tucson are
from those two departments and from Neurosciences, linguistics, pre-med,
speech-and-hearing, and education. Her lab is the scene of constant
interaction among different disciplines.
The multi disciplinary feeling and constant lively debate are like
a microcosm of Pepperberg's field. Researchers trying to open two-way
communication with animals are caught in the crossfire of a controversy
that has been running for decades. On one side are the strict
behaviorists, who suggest that animals have no real thought processes,
no consciousness, no awareness of their own actions. At the other
extreme are those who maintain that animals may indeed be thinking and
that science should inquire what they are thinking about. Joining this
far-reaching debate are psychologists, linguists, and philosophers who
ask: What is awareness? What is language? Do things like "belief" and
"desire" really exist, even in humans?
The arguments continue, but the study of animal minds---now
dignified with the name "cognitive ethology"---is gaining stature as a
legitimate field. Researchers have managed to open limited dialogues with
various mammals: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, dolphins, sea lions.
And joining this cast of "smart" mammals on stage is one Grey parrot.
"We haven't gone as far as the chimpanzee or marine mammal studies,"
says Pepperberg. "But up to this point Alex has performed as well as the
chimps or dolphins." No other researcher has taken bird communication
to this level.
For Pepperberg the Grey parrot was a calculated choice as a promising
study species. But parrots also represent the endangered wildlife of
the tropics. "There are more than three hundred parrot species,"
she says, "mostly in the tropics, and nearly one-fourth of those could
be considered endangered in the wild. These are intelligent, adaptable
birds, and they could probably survive alongside 21st Century humanity
given a chance." But the cage-bird trade doesn't give them a chance."
She favors legislation now being considered that would ban the import
of wild birds. "Wild-caught parrots make inferior pets, and shocking
numbers of wild parrots die in transport. If someone really has the time
to devote to a pet parrot, the only responsible approach is to buy on
that has been raised by a reputable breeder.
"If my research could affect public awareness," she concludes, "I'd
like people to realize that a parrot is not just a bundle of bright
feathers. A parrot is a creature with mental capabilities beyond what
we would have guessed---a creature that deserves respect. As civilized
beings, we can't go on blithely destroying the habitat and populations of
It is creative playtime in the lab. Alex and Irene are at the computer.
A children's counting game is on the screen, a dozen flying saucers
on a blue background, four more enclosed in a band of yellow. "How
many in yellow?" Alex eyes the screen and shouts, "Foh-wurr," while Pam
and Denice applaud. The students want to design a test based on this game
but Pepperberg has doubts: It might be too easy. "We don't do anything
else at the computer yet. He'd know that the answer had to be a number.
It would be better to mix these questions with another type."
She shows Alex a plastic letter K. "What sound, Alex?"
Is she teaching the bird to read?
"No," says Pepperberg, as Alex grates out a series of "K" sounds
in the background. "We're just seeing if he can learn to associate sounds
with symbols." She never dro the cautious objectivity, never goes beyond
her data. But a visitor can hardly resist the temptation to extrapolate.
It's just a decade now since science conceded parrot might link
an object with a word. Now one parrot is not only naming objects but
classifying them, counting them, and comparing them. Who knows what's
This has all taken place in a setting and a language totally alien
to the bird. How much more might a parrot "know" in the wild, in the
abundant complexity of the rainforest, where its native intelligence
would be abetted by native instinct, where it might learn directly from
others of its own kind?
The answer to that may be beyond the reach of current science. But
thanks to Irene Pepperberg and Alex, we can begin to appreciate the