The Alex Studies. Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots
by Irene Pepperberg
Edition: 1999, Reprint, 2002
‘‘Bye. I’m gonna go eat dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow.’’ I hear these words, or variations, each night as I leave my laboratory. Exactly what one expects to hear from the typical graduate or undergraduate student— but these words do not emanate from human lips; rather they come from a beak—the beak of my research subject, a Grey parrot.
Not many scientists can describe such interactions with the subject of their studies, but for the past two decades I have been examining the cognitive and communicative abilities of this parrot, Alex, and the dialogue quoted above is one outcome of my work. In recent years, Alex has been joined by Kyaaro, Griffin, and, briefly, Alo. When I began
my studies, the capacities of Grey parrots were unknown. Yes, everyone knew parrots could mimic human speech sounds, often to an uncanny extent. And in articles in the popular press, pet owners claimed that their birds used speech in meaningful ways. Was there a kernel of truth in all this anecdotal evidence? How much did these birds really understand? How much could these birds learn to understand? Given an appropriately enriched environment, might parrots turn out to be the great apes of the bird world? I set out to find answers to these questions.