In 1977, Dr. Irene Pepperberg bought Alex, an African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus erithacus), from a pet store in Chicago. She bought Alex because he was an ordinary parrot, but Dr. Pepperberg was no ordinary person; she sought to find out how smart the ordinary African Grey Parrot really was. With no special breeding traits or formal training, Alex was the perfect subject.
Through the years, Dr. Pepperberg found that Alex understood a number of concepts and methods including counting, identifying and lableling objects, wanting something versus identifying something, and telling what’s same and what’s different. And now, Dr. Pepperberg has made another breakthrough. Recent studies have shown that Alex understands the concept of zero. It may not sound like much, but zero is thought to be an abstract concept that people don’t grasp until age three or four. And some ancient cultures as recently as the Middle Ages didn’t even have a term for it. It’s thought that Alex may have known what zero was, but now knows how to convey it.
“It is doubtful that Alex’s achievement, or those of some other animals such as chimps, can be completely trained,” Pepperberg said. “Rather, it seems likely that these skills are based on simpler cognitive abilities they need for survival, such as recognition of more versus less.”
Dr. Pepperberg’s studies have been invaluable. Not only has she given great insight into animal behavior, knowledge, and communication, but her model-rival training techniques are being used for teaching dysfunctional children. For more information about her research and how you can help, please visit The Alex Foundation. Also be sure to check out The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots. It’s a fascinating read.
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