Are You a Bird Brain? You May Wish You Were!

Alex the African Grey ParrotOn those days when you start to feel that your coursework is taxing your brain, take a moment to think about Alex, an African grey parrot, who was the subject of a thirty-year (1977-2007) experiment by an animal psychologist named Irene Pepperberg, initially at the University of Arizona and later at Harvard and Brandeis University. Before her work, scientists believed that a large primate brain was needed to deal with complex problems related to language and understanding and that birds were not intelligent and only used words by mimicking.

Pepperberg’s accomplishments found that birds may actually be able to reason on a basic level and to use words creatively. She reported that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old human and the emotional level of a human two-year-old at the time of his premature death (from an unexpected catastrophic event associated with arteriosclerosis) when he was about thirty years old (the average life span for African grey parrots is fifty years). At the time of his death, he could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six and could distinguish seven colors and five shapes. He understood the concepts of “bigger,” “smaller,” “same,” and “different,” and was learning “over” and “under.”

Among a number of his skills, he had a vocabulary of 150 words and appeared to have understanding of what he said. He could label an object when asked about its shape, color or material. He could also add to a limited extent, and understood the concept of zero, answering “none” when asked the difference between two objects if there was indeed no difference!

When the bird was tired of being tested, he would indicate that he wanted to go back to his cage by saying, “Wanna go back.” If he said, “Wanna banana,” and was offered a nut instead, he would stare in silence, ask for the banana again, or take the nut and throw it at the researcher before requesting the item again!

And talk about “famous last words,”Alex’s last words to Dr. Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”

8 Responses to “Are You a Bird Brain? You May Wish You Were!”

  1. Ruth Saal

    What a wonderful article. I work with small children and this article reminds me of a day at work. They understand so much more than you realize and if you get it wrong you may have something thrown at you in response.
    I had no idea that the life span of a parrot could be so long. I do however have direct knowledge of the abilities of birds. I have had them for pets many times in my youth. I remember “Pretty Bird” who preferred me to the other members of my family. He road around on the edge of my glasses much of the day. “Joe the Crow” was a favorite. He came to us one day out of the trees. We supposed he had been an escapee from a private owner who had taught him to talk. We taught him to say “Hello, Joe”, “Cracker” and “Help. Because of the incessant barking of the neighbors dog he began to make barking sounds as well.
    We had a business and he was not very hygienic so we put him in a cage which he couldn’t tolerate and soon died.
    The moral being, whenever we get the ideas that our little brains just can’t handle all that we are trying to feed it, even a bird brain can hold more than you can imagine. Don’t give up Keep Learning !!

  2. Donna Atkins

    Loved your comments, Ruth! Fascinating that the bird rode around on your eyeglasses! I had a parakeet who would sit on my shoulder and when I said, “Tell me a secret, Judy,” she would pretend to whisper in my ear. It was so clear that birds have more intelligence than given credit for. Thanks for posting!

  3. Margaret Massey

    This was a great article. I know African Grays have a great level of vocabulary. I have a Yellow Nape Amazon. They also have a good vocabulary but nowhere near a gray. One of my friend’s Amazon can whistle songs, meow like a cat when she is being ignored, and when the phone rings she will say hello and then have phone conversations like she is talking on the phone. It tends to be a few words and then she mumbles. With parrots, you never know what they will say. The first time my father met my bird the bird comes out with the ” F” word. he had heard my kids use it and my father was SHOCKED. So when you are around a large bird….be very careful what you say.

  4. Annette Shinsky

    What a wonderful article. I liked that you compared the bird’s testing to school coursework taxing our brains because there were times I felt like Alex, “Wanna go back.”
    When the time comes that you start to feel this way the best thing I found was to simply take a step back and walk away. When I’m stressed out I don’t think clearly, all I see is panic, stress, this is impossible, etc. Sometimes getting away from what’s stressing me out gives me a mental time out, by focusing on something (anything) else I can usually come up with a way to handle the situation, because I have given myself a chance to step back and calm down. Then I can feel more like “Wanna go forward.”

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