What can a bird learn? Irene Pepperberg set out to find out. As with children, the best way to assess what has been learnt is to ask. Primarily for that reason, she chose birds capable of forming human words. An African Grey parrot, who she dubbed Alex [Avian Learning EXperiment], became the subject of her investigations. Earlier efforts in laboratories were unsatisfactory. Why should Mynahs, reputedly excellent mimics, fail to learn speech in laboratory conditions? When in homes with several people providing input, they chatter endlessly, almost to distraction. The solution, Pepperberg decided, was the intense social environment. To that end, she developed a training method that produced astonishing results.
This book thoroughly documents the author's methods and results, providing a fascinating account of the cognitive abilities of at least one psittacine species, the Grey Parrot. Incorporating a technique she calls M/R - for Model/Rival, Pepperberg would "teach" an assistant what she wished Alex to learn. The bird observed this, then was encouraged to emulate the learning experience. This meant the bird had to understand what was to be learned and use its innate abilities to achieve it. Speech was the first lessons, but things moved well beyond simple words quickly. Shapes, colours and materials were the next level, with Alex discriminating among them both singly and in groupings. The object was to understand what Alex could comprehend and act on. Alex also learned to differentiate - "larger", or "different" or, most significantly for a bird - "abscence". He could note when something was missing, naming the missing object. The method resulted in Alex's expressing his own needs and wants, even ending a training session by declaring he wished to quit.
Pepperberg's research findings are in direct contradiction to past scientific efforts. The book is therefore richly detailed with the methods used and was information was obtained. There are photographs of test object layouts, even stills from X-ray videos of how Alex forms his speech. She is clearly challenging the received wisdom of established opinion. She's careful to avoid terms like "consciousness" or even "intelligence", although the latter comes in for some discussion late in the book. She finds only one example of Alex's communication she thinks can be deemed "creative". Much more important, in her view, is that we need to understand previously under-evaluated cognitive capabilities in parrots. They are a long-lived and social species, conditions which lead to interaction among individuals and reinforced learning. Social interaction, combined with carefully devised teaching methods are essential to proper learning, whether with children, other primates or psittacines. The capacity is there, and we need to recognise it. The Alex studies clearly demonstrate that at least these psittacines are capable of far more than the simply mimicry we've long attributed to them. Human primacy in learning, once considered fundamental to our place in Nature, is clearly at an end.
Pepperberg's narrative is thoroughly detailed and supported by an equally thorough bibliography. The reading may be a bit of a slog for the novice reader. The citation method breaks up sentences, a common technique with ethography studies, but cumbersome to cope with. The method is in line with her concern for academic acceptance. She excuses the approach as not desiring "to overwhelm readers with facts and figures" [although there are still plenty of those] but to encourage an enlarged sensitivity to the abilities of non-human species. She has certainly accomplished that task, and admirably. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]