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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A day in the life of a parrot

Published: January 23, 2009
Section: News

ALEX AND ME: Adjunct associat Irene Pepperberg  speaks about her relationship with Alex the parrot.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Jodi Elkin/The Hoot</i>

ALEX AND ME: Adjunct associat Irene Pepperberg speaks about her relationship with Alex the parrot.
PHOTO BY Jodi Elkin/The Hoot

On Wednesday, scientist Irene Pepperberg spoke about the rewards and trials of a thirty-year relationship with her subject Alex, an African Grey Parrot famous for its communicative abilities.

As part of the Office of Communication’s “Meet the Author” series, Dr. Pepperberg discussed her recently published memoir “Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.”

One of her motivations for writing the book was to illustrate the story behind her cognitive and communicative research on birds.

Pepperberg said, “Science isn’t just sitting in your lab. There is literal blood, sweat and tears.”

Pepperberg’s lecture detailed the difficulty of finding funding for her research on parrots’ speaking abilities and the struggle to assert the credibility of that research.

In the 1970s, Pepperberg began her work with Alex. During that time, people questioned the validity of animal language studies.

When Pepperberg submitted her proposal for a grant to finance her study, it was met with extreme skepticism and a refusal. “They basically asked me what was I smoking?” Pepperberg said.

Eventually, someone on the panel was sympathetic to her research and the project was given funding for one year. Alex learned two dozen English labels for shapes and colors, and a paper was written and published.

When Ronald Reagan was elected and the budget for basic sciences was cut, she again faced financial hardship. Students at Purdue University, where Pepperberg was a Research Associate, volunteered their services to help train Alex.

Since there was no longer a grant, Pepperberg lost her salary, and when her husband was not given tenure at Purdue, they decided to move.

It would not be the last time: Pepperberg repeatedly faced lack of funding and disinterest.

Around this time Alex learned the concept of “same and different,” a concept that no non-human had ever been proven to know before, Pepperberg explained.

Yet, Alex did not handle the constant moves well. Pepperberg said, “Alex was doing amazing things [but we] lurched from place to place. It was disruptive.”

In 2002 Alex and Pepperberg came to Brandeis, where Pepperberg took her current job as Adjunct Associate Professor.

During the event, Pepperberg shared a few of her memories of Alex’s personality, his sense of humor.

Alex would sometimes behave poorly during training sessions, throwing things onto the floor or giving all wrong answers.

Pepperberg said that she would then give Alex a “time out” and begin to leave the room, which is when Alex would call out the correct answer.

She stated that one of her most shocking discoveries was that Alex understood the concept of “none.”

Pepperberg had arranged sets of 3, 4 and 6 objects, and tried to get Alex to pick the correct set. Instead, Alex repeated “5” over and over again.

At first, Pepperberg was frustrated, but then she asked Alex, “What color?” and Alex responded with “none” revealing that he understood an abstract concept.

Alex’s death in 2007 at the age of 31 was met with media attention and many condolences. Pepperberg said she was surprised by the enormity of the response. She received over 3,000 emails and boxes of letters.

One woman, who had made a monthly donation to help fund the running of the lab, wrote a letter explaining how Alex’s story provided her the will to live and stop contemplating suicide.

Pepperberg hypothesized why Alex was an inspiration to people, “He gave people a sense of oneness with nature and realize the uniqueness of the beings around them.”

Currently, Pepperberg is training two more parrots, Griffin and Arthur.