Wednesday, August 25, 2010


by Irene M. Pepperberg
A book review by Don Meyer

What do you look for in the books you prefer?  Drama?  Humor?  Mystery?   Discovery?  Intelligence?  Love?  I daresay this true story contains all those ingredients.

Irene Pepperberg is a scientist, and an associate research professor at Brandeis University.  She also teaches animal cognition at Harvard University.

In 1977 Irene was looking for a one-year-old African Grey parrot that had been bred in captivity because she was just about to start on a scientific study regarding the cognitive abilities of African Greys.  Alex was that African Grey.  I say “was” because Alex died in 2007 at the age of 31.

Ms. Pepperberg starts her story at the end--when Alex died.  Apparently his death did not go unnoticed.  There were articles in The New York Times science section--on three separate days.

Photos of Alex appeared on CNN, and in Time Magazine, among others.  National Public Radio had a segment on “All Things Considered”. Diane Sawyer did a 2-1/2 minute segment on ABC’s “Good Morning America”.  CBS anchor Katie Couric devoted more time to Alex’s life and death than to major political issues.

The British newspaper “The Guardian” wrote: “America is in mourning.  Alex, the African Grey parrot, who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.”

Jay Leno cracked, "They say his intelligence was somewhere between a dog and Miss Teen South Carolina.”

The Economist, probably the world’s preeminent weekly magazine on politics, finance and business, ran an obituary that said in part that Alex had spent a life learning complex tasks that, it had been originally thought, only primates could master.

It has long been thought that parrots only mimicked what they heard; that they really didn’t know the meaning of what they said.  Ms. Pepperberg set out to demonstrate otherwise, and that was the project that she and Alex worked on for the next 30 years.  Irene said, “I had determined that my professional approach would be rigorous in training and in testing my Grey.  I had come from the so-called hard sciences, after all.  I needed my data to be unimpeachable, to meet high standards of credibility.”  She was able to demonstrate that Alex could appropriately label objects, correctly label colors, and that he had a functional use of the word “No”, none of which he was supposed to be able to do.

Because of the high scientific standards necessary for the project, Ms. Pepperberg would work Alex more than the bird would sometimes want.  Alex would get bored, or tired, and refuse to give correct answers even when Irene knew that he knew.  One session was especially telling.  The bird could count up to seven, knew the names of 50 objects, and had a vocabulary of 150 words.

There were times when his antics had me laughing so hard that I had to put the book down and recover before continuing.  Yes, I certainly recommend this book.

Funny signs -

Sign over a Gynecologist's Office: 
"Dr. Jones, at your cervix."

In a Podiatrist's office: 
"Time wounds all heels."   

On a Septic Tank Truck: 
Yesterday's Meals on Wheels 

At a Proctologist's door: 
"To expedite your visit, please back in."

1 comment:

  1. Very cool.

    I was reading an article about squirrels the other day that mentioned the author's observations of downtown DC squirrels waiting for a group of pedestrians to cross at the light, the squirrel waiting too, and then the squirrel running just behind them as they crossed--the people knew when they could safely go, so... And given that the squirrel population quite outnumbers sustainability there, if it were not for tourists feeding them, they've learned to pay attention to the people.

    They're all so intriguing.