I love birds, and science, and books, so how could I not love a book about a talking bird, written by the scientist who raised him? Alex and Me is a touching, funny account of a scientist who trained an African Grey parrot to talk, in order to gather information about bird cognition and language. Alex learned how to label colours, materials and objects, knew ‘same’ versus ‘different’, was able to construct original phrases from words he’d been taught, could count to six and possibly add numbers, and even taught himself to segment words into phonemes, after being taught how to link English speech sounds to plastic letters. He played jokes on his trainers, loved to dance and be tickled, and said ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Calm down’ during tense situations after watching people in the lab use these phrases. The book is full of entertaining Alex anecdotes – for example, he once ordered a toy parrot, ‘You tickle!’ and then, when the toy failed to respond, said, ‘You turkey!’ and stalked off in a huff. When recuperating at the vet’s after an operation, he wanted to talk to everyone he saw, including the accountant who was working late one night:
“‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally Alex became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”
I must admit that Dr Pepperberg is not the world’s greatest writer, and this book would have benefitted from further editing. I really didn’t need to know the details of the author’s childhood or her early studies, for example, and I would have liked more information about how Alex produced human-like sounds when he didn’t have lips or teeth. I’d also have loved some photos of Alex (although I later found a film clip of him in action). Another issue, barely alluded to in the book, is how captivity affected Alex’s life. His beak, claws and wings were clipped when he was young, and he never had the chance to fly, to sit in a tree or to mate with another parrot. Dr Pepperberg had difficulties securing permanent research funding, and the constant moves around the country made Alex so stressed that at times, he pulled his own feathers out. I’d like to think that a similar research project nowadays would show greater concern for the bird’s welfare, although it’s clear from the book that Dr Pepperberg and Alex had a strong, affectionate bond and that she was devastated by his relatively early death at the age of thirty-one.
One thing that surprised me was how resistant many scientists were to Dr Pepperberg’s theories (and evidence) about animal cognition and language, with many refusing to accept that animals could actually use ‘language’. Some continue to believe that Alex was merely repeating the sounds he heard without any understanding of their meaning, and that his intelligent behaviour was simply a ‘Clever Hans’ effect, with Alex responding to cues from his handlers during testing. This seems highly unlikely to me – the research was carefully planned to control for the ‘Clever Hans’ effect by using multiple trainers and testers. Anyway, Alex repeatedly demonstrated complex, novel, situation-specific behaviours that could not have been prompted by his handlers. But perhaps some scientists feel threatened by the notion that animals other than themselves are capable of intelligent behaviour, of using language – of even, perhaps, experiencing human-like emotions.
I’ve never met an African Grey parrot, but I’ve spent the past decade watching the wild rainbow lorikeets that hang out on my apartment balcony and they use language. Rainbow lorikeets don’t imitate human sounds, but are capable of ‘almost continuous screeching and chattering’, as Jim Flegg’s Birds of Australia says. They make happy, murmuring sounds when they’re feeding or grooming each other; enquiring calls if their mate is out of sight, rising in intensity if the other bird doesn’t respond immediately; sharp, angry sounds when another bird muscles in on their territory; and inquisitive, chirruping sounds at me if I’m watering my balcony plants or appear to be eating something they might like. When baby rainbow lorikeets want their parents’ attention (which is pretty much all the time), they make a noise like bits of styrofoam rubbing against each other, and the harassed parents respond as quickly as they can. Isn’t that ‘using language’? But I think they go even further in human-like behaviours than simply using language.
One morning last year, I was awakened by the sound of some rainbow lorikeets screeching with distress outside my window. I went out to investigate, assuming they were being harassed by currawongs, and found a dead adult lorikeet lying on my balcony. It showed no obvious signs of injury or disease – the poor thing had simply died. Two lorikeets were sitting on the balcony railing, looking down at the dead bird and screeching, but they fell silent when they saw me and climbed down the railings to have a closer look. One of them started grooming the feathers around the dead bird’s face; the other took hold of the dead bird’s claw and gave it a couple of tugs, as if to urge it to wake up. The two birds climbed back up onto the railings to watch while I took the body away, and then flew to a nearby tree branch, where they sat for twenty minutes gazing at the spot where the dead bird had been. Did they feel sad? Or confused? It’s impossible to tell, but they were certainly unsettled by what they’d seen – and this was an adult bird that had died, not their baby.
As I don’t have any photos of Alex, here are some photos of rainbow lorikeets. First, a rainbow lorikeet eating a grape:
And a group of rainbow lorikeets hanging out on my balcony:
And finally, rainbow lorikeets take flight: