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Have you ever heard of African grey parrots? They are now famous for their ability to imitate sounds. However, in the past parrots weren’t considered to be smart. Most scientists thought that a bigger brain means smarter creatures. Thus, parrots weren’t popular with their “walnut-size” brains. But Alex -also an African grey parrot- proved that this was not the case. In 1977 Irene Pepperbeg got Alex for an “avian learning experiment” when he was 12-13 months old from an ordinary pet shop. She didn’t even choose the bird herself for people not think that she had chosen a special one. A store employee picked him for Irene so that she would be able to show that any bird is capable of the task she would be teaching.

Dr. Pepperberg (a research scientist at Harvard University) started training her by a method called “model-rival”. According to that method, Pepperberg and a student would teach each other a word. They would sometimes switch roles for Alex to understand the task better. For example, Irene would show a key saying “key”. The student would repeat it and Irene would hand the student the key. Then the student would show the key to Irene. She would respond with “key” and have the object back. Then it would be Alex’s turn. They would also show him the key if he answered correctly, they would give him the key as an award, It was working very well because Alex liked playing this game.

After some time Alex had a vocabulary of over a hundred words which contains names of different objects, actions, colors, and materials. He could even identify the material of certain objects. He could count objects up to six and was working on seven and eight. “He can look at two objects and answer several different types of questions about those objects or he can look at a novel collection of items and answer questions about that collection. What this shows us is that he really understands what those questions mean.” Pepperberg stated.

Here are some examples:

He could make up words. He mixed up “cherry” and “banana” and created the word “banerry” to describe an apple.

When they showed him two keys -one of them was bigger and green- and asked “How many?” He said two. Then Irene asked him “What color is bigger?” He said ‘green’, which was correct.

Irene brought him a tray that had two different types of objects with the colors blue and green. Then she asked him “How many green blocks?”. He said ‘two’, which was correct again. Also, he could ask for anything. For instance, he would say “I want a banana” or “I want corn”.

Once when they brought him the corn, he said “Cold” and Irene said, “Yes, it’s cold that’s from the refrigerator.” This shows us that he could really understand what those words mean and that he wasn’t just imitating them.


Moreover, there’s another accomplishment of his that shocked everyone. He is the first animal ever to ask an existential question. He was in front of a mirror and after observing himself for a while he asked “What color?”. After having taught him six times he learned the word gray which is the color of his feathers.

All good things come to an end and this story did so. Sadly, Alex passed away on September 6, 2007, unexpectedly. His last words were “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” This is so saddening but all this time he proved that the science world was wrong. African greys were very intelligent and bird brains are more complicated than they were considered.


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