It turns out, being a birdbrain isn’t so bad – at least if the birdbrain happens to belong to any of the many parrot species. “Parrots more or less share an intellect equal to great apes and dolphins,” says ethnologist and avian researcher Irene Pepperberg, a visiting associate professor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Cambridge. Doggone it; if you have an Amazon or African Grey parrot, you can even boast that your bird is smarter than your neighbor’s pooch or kitty cat.
One upon a time when researchers studied bird intelligence, chicken was the bird of choice – hardly MENSA candidates, this is how the moniker birdbrain started. Later pigeons were used, and all the while even scientists assumed parrots merely mimicked words, not truly understanding their meanings.
Pepperberg, who grew up in Brooklyn with little budgies (often called parakeets) as her only siblings, thought if songbirds could whistle in excess of 100 songs and use different songs in different contexts, there must be at least some understanding of their meanings.
In 1973, she was on her way to earning a doctorate in chemical physics from Harvard when a series of Nova TV programs about animal intellect captivated her interest. She flocked to every study published on animal communication, and she was hooked.
When Pepperberg wrote her first grant proposals to research bird intelligence, those whose job it is to review such overtures dubbed Pepperberg a birdbrain. Pepperberg took that as a compliment and persevered. She wanted an African Grey parrot, arguably the most articulate and language oriented of all parrots. But she totally chose her African Grey at random with a 1977 visit to a Chicago pet store. At the time, neither Pepperberg nor Alex, the African Grey parrot, had any idea that he would become the subject of more scientific journals than any other bird in history.
“The problem with the intelligence of the African Greys previously studied wasn’t their intelligence,” she says, “it was the intelligence of the researchers.” The vast majority of research with parrots had previously used food to reward correct behaviors, a sort of psychology accepted by dog trainers. Instead Pepperberg adopted and further refined a method first employed by German ethnologist Dietmar Todt, which she called the model rival technique of learning. “It’s very much a method of how humans learn language, a lot of potential for listening, for mimicry and creating a sort of exciting interaction,” she says.
Instead of just repeating the word ‘stick’ or ‘grape’ over and over and over again, adnauseam, in Pepperberg’s model rival technique, two humans excitedly talk about a stick or a grape. “It sort of becomes a competition, and after observing, the bird’s interest is peaked,” Pepperberg says. When the bird says the word ‘stick’ or ‘grape,’ the reward is the object being spoken about – in this case a stick or a grape – not a cracker or something irrelevant to the conversation.
Alex caught on instantly. By 1981, Alex could identify objects by name, shape and color, averaging 80 percent accuracy in more than 200 tests. Pepperberg published “Functional Vocalizations by an Africa Grey Parrot,” the first of many scientific papers to feature Alex.
Today, Alex is now 23 years old – middle aged for an African Grey with a typical lifespan of 45 to 50 years. Today, Alex can distinguish seven colors and five shapes. He understands various textures, and he can distinguish 50 objects.
If Alex says he wants a grape, don’t try to give him corn; he’ll holler, “No!” And if Alex is in the mood for something, he isn’t shy about requesting it, “Want shower” or “Want nut,” he demands.
He can even count, Ask “How many keys?”
His answer is clear. “Five.”
On the same palate, there are three sticks, and he’ll count those up too, distinguishing them from the keys. If you want, he’ll even tell which sticks or keys are larger or smaller.
Teach Alex something new, and he’ll generally score better than repeating that same old stuff. The implication is that by now Alex has gotten bored with mundane key counting and prefers challenging lessons. That’s one reason why Pepperberg and her students are now working with another African Grey, 4 ½-year old Griffin.
While Pepperberg, who is also an associate professor at University of Arizona – Tucson, shies away from calling Alex’s talent language, she adds, “These aren’t tricks, like teaching a dog to do tricks, and then the dog performs for treats. There’s clearly thought process, clearly communication. What’s more, parrots happen to have a skill chimpanzees and dolphins don’t have – they can tell us what they’re thinking.”
But is that going too far? Hardly, according to Phoebe Linden, a Santa Barbara, California based breeder and behavior analyst for 15 years. Linden is also studying the intellectual capabilities of these birds, but she’s learning these birds have more than just plain smarts. For one thing, they have a sense of humor. Josser Lynn is one of her cockatoos. Linden says, “This bird is an adult, and knows where she can and where she can’t go. One day, when no one was around, she decided to go to a place she’s not allowed. She carefully extracted my husband’s license from his wallet, and just as carefully chewed up his face. Birds see very well; she deliberately chewed up the face. When I came into the room, she was holding the license in her beak and laughing hysterically.” Linden, she says, even knows of some birds that ask for their favorite TV programs, including “The Three Stooges.”
“They just love that slapstick humor,” she says.
Linden also says that parrots are empathic. Herman was a very sick green-winged macaw. “I was crying, just a mess,” says Linden. “Very concerned, I kept repeating to Herman, ‘Are you okay?'”
Herman recovered, but ever since whenever Linden gets concerned or upset Herman inquires, ‘Are you okay?’ One day a construction crew arrived at 6:30 a.m. to re-pave the driveway — several hours earlier than scheduled. Herman, sensing these people don’t belong, began to scream. Linden bolted down the stairs in her nightgown, “What’s the matter?” the bird asked. Linden, seeing it was the construction workers, replied, “We’re getting the driveway re-paved.”
Herman asked, “Where’s Harry?” Harry is Linden’s husband.
She told the bird “Harry’s upstairs.” Still worried, Herman inquired, “Are you okay?” When Linden replied, “Yes,” Herman went back to sleep.
Can you have an actual conversation with a bird? “Of course, I have them all the time,” replies avian behaviorist Chris Davis, of Channahow, Illinois. “We’re only now beginning to understand just how profound these birds are. In captivity, so many birds don’t have any spark, not enough interesting things happen and as a result the birds develop behavior problems or even become very ill – all because they’re bored. That’s just how smart they are.”
Pepperberg is sending students to West Africa to study these birds in the wild. “Parrots are becoming increasingly popular as pets, yet we know virtually nothing about them,” says Pepperberg. For some species, we may not have all that much time to learn, due to poaching and habitat destruction, they’re disappearing, and disappearing fast.
Certainly, Pepperberg’s work affects every bird owner. Government dollars for such projects are dwindling. If you can help, send a check to the Alex Foundation, c/o Spencer Lynn, Department of Ecology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AR, 85721.