Mary Rogan in Seed Magazine
Alex is an African Grey parrot, but in all likelihood, he wasn’t born in Africa. Like most birds in pet shops, he was probably bred as a “domestic” in North America, but that’s all we know about Alex’s early history. We don’t know how his parents are or his exact birth date. Some of this mystery was appealing to Pepperberg in her search for the perfect specimen to test her theories about avian intelligence. She didn’t want anyone thinking she’d picked a “super” bird that had been bred especially for smarts. In Pepperberg’s hands, Alex (whose name stands for Avian Learning Experiment) was going to show the world that parrots can do more than, well, parrot. Namely, they can mean what they say. If Polly wants a cracker, she really wants a cracker. Or, as Pepperberg explains it, birds can think. And not in the way you’ve seen your dog thinking when you catch him staring at the exact spot on the kitchen floor where you dropped a pot roast six months ago. According to Pepperberg, Alex his the cognitive abilities of a 6-year-old child. He can identify objects, colors, and shapes, and he’s not just repeating what he hears. This is a substantial claim, given that Alex’s brain is the size of a shelled walnut.
Twenty-five years ago this claim meant a radical paradigm shift in the study of animal intelligence—a shift that’s still happening today. In this venture, apparently, size really does matter, and until Alex came along, the study of cognition, and especially the acquisition of language, had focused exclusively on large primate brains with frontal lobes. The idea of jumping from that group to one entirely outside the mammalian class was hard for many to swallow. But to Pepperberg, that seemed a little like the guy who loses his keys in a park at night but then searches for them under the street lamp because that’s where the light is best. Sure, primate brains look a lot like ours, but why not throw the net a little wider? A parrot’s ability to speak—barring a real-life Planet of the Apes—represents a significant built-in starting point for communication. Given the opportunity, what else might these birds be capable of? To Pepperberg it was a reasonable question—but when she applied for her first NIH grant, they told her to go pound sand. When she came back the second time, she brought Alex’s first report card, which showed he was recognizing and naming objects. This time, they didn’t say no. If Pepperberg could put her money where he parrot was, Alex would be poised to crash the gates of the exclusive “frontal lobes only” intelligence club. A thinking bird would topple everything we’d previously assumed about animal intelligence.