Dr Irene Pepperberg is well known for her studies on Alex the Grey Parrot and this book provides a thorough and detailed account of some of the studies on Alex, and some the results show the considerable intelligence of parrots. Already having a Grey Parrot myself, I found the studies particularly interesting, in the hope of unlocking some of my parrots numerical and communicative abilities. I wouldn't advise the book for a novice in this area - the language used and the scientific detail of the studies might be confusing. The book is a detailed and absorbing account of some of the abilities of parrots and anyone with an interest in parrots, animal behaviour would find this book fascinating.
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]
Having just bought a couple of parrots (one is an African Grey) I ordered this book with great enthusiasm. The study is absolutely fascinating and I believe that Pepperberg should be congratulated for her patience and diligence over the 2-3 years she trained Alex. Every parrot owner should read this book at least once so as to get a better understanding of the thought processes behind that noisy, colourful, little friend sat in the corner of the room!!!! However, this book has one serious fundamental flaw that detracts from its overall readability and enjoyment. Full blown references pepper nearly EVERY paragraph. I'm not sure what the reasoning behind this was but on literally every page 40% of the text is taken up by references. What a waste. More importantly, it makes the book totally unreadable. The continual references disrupt the flow of the narrative and, in one case, I found myself having to skim over 1/2 page of references before a sentence was completed. Cynics amongst us would say that its just a way of padding out the size of the book. I don't believe that to be the case. I believe that for Pepperberg this book was important and she needs to show that its findings are based on substantial research. Fair enough - but why not simply list all references at the end of each chapter???? Instead they are totally intrusive. Hence, because of this problem (and it is a problem) I did not finish reading this book although I really wanted to. I think I'll wait for the next edition which will hopefully be restructured. To summarise, fascinating study that is an important read for all parrot owners. Only problem is it is so darn difficult to read!!! Wait for the next edition.