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Alex, the parrot who learned to say 'I love you' and MEAN it: In an astonishing new book, a woman scientist says she's proved animals can talk

By Irene M. Pepperberg
Published: 18:43 EST, 13 October 2013 | Updated: 10:12 EST, 14 October 2013

Disbelief: Most people believed that any researcher who claimed animals could communicate was committing fraud, deceiving himself, or sending sub-conscious hints through his body language.

The very last time I saw Alex, he was chatty and affectionate. There was nothing unusual about this: after 30 years of triumphs and setbacks, we’d developed a strong mutual bond.

‘You be good. I love you,’ said Alex, as I prepared to leave the laboratory.

‘I love you, too,’ I replied.

‘You’ll be in tomorrow?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’ll be in tomorrow.’

A perfectly normal exchange — except that Alex happened to be an African Grey parrot, with a brain the size and shape of a shelled walnut. By all the accepted laws of nature, he should never have been able to hold a conversation with me.

The sceptics — and there were plenty — said that parrots are capable only of mimicking words.

Indeed, when I started working with Alex, most leading animal behaviour scientists believed that there was no such thing as meaningful communication between animals and humans.

Any researcher who claimed otherwise was committing fraud, deceiving himself, or sending sub-conscious hints through his body language.

But I didn’t agree. As a lonely and ultra-nerdy schoolgirl, I’d grown up with a succession of green parakeets as my only regular companions. My mother had paid me little attention — yet my parakeets had provided me with intimacy and, to my mind, genuine love.

It never occurred to me to study birds, however, until I was much older and nearing the end of a doctorate in chemistry. Then I happened to catch a TV series that showed dolphins whistling and chimps using sign language.

I’d had no idea that serious researchers were doing studies on what was going on in the minds of animals — and I knew instantly and inescapably that this was where my future lay. Just as well that I didn’t know then what trials lay ahead — how I would lose my marriage, live on the breadline for years and be treated with jealousy or contempt by many of my fellow-scientists.

After taking some courses on animal behaviour, I soon realised that no one in this field was working with birds. And it didn’t take long to discover that the species that learned most easily and talked most clearly was the African Grey parrot. 

So, in June 1977, with my husband David, I drove to a specialist pet store and asked the owner to pick me a bird. Scooping out the nearest parrot from a cage of eight, he flipped it on to its back, clipped its wings, claws, and beak, and popped it into a small box.

By the time we’d wrestled it out of its box and placed it in a cage — at a lab rented from our local university in the U.S. state of Indiana — the bird obviously didn’t trust anything or anyone, least of all me.

He was trembling, squawking nervously, and stepping from foot to foot on his perch.

Yet this tiny bundle of feathers was going to change the way people thought about other creatures — and in the process, change my life.

Grandly, I named him Alex — an acronym for my planned Avian Language Experiment.

Our relationship didn’t start well. For the first couple of days, he wouldn’t even come out of his cage. On the third day, he tried to fly out and — because his wings had been clipped — promptly crashed to the floor.

He was squawking pathetically, flapping his wings wildly. Suddenly, there was blood everywhere. I realised he’d broken a wing feather, which I carefully removed, but it was obvious that Alex had been badly shaken.  

Over the next few days, he gradually became braver. I started to give him objects, such as paper and pieces of wood, and trying to teach him the words for them.

As I embarked on his first lesson, continually repeating the word ‘paper’, he’d chew the bits of paperenthusiastically, rapidly tearing them to shreds. Bad choice, as it turned out, because it’s very hard to make a ‘puh’ sound if you don’t have lips.

At first, Alex made random noises. But within four or five weeks, he was asking for ‘ay-yer’ so he could clean his beak after eating a messy piece of fruit. A day later, he was saying ‘pay-er’.

Remarkable lesson: Over time Professor Pepperberg taught Alex to recognise colours and shapes to prove that he could understand her commands

He was also able to correctly identify a silver key when I presented it to him. It was one of those ‘I think he’s got it; by George, he’s got it’ moments.

But why, I wondered, had Alex’s pronunciation so dramatically improved from one day to the next?

The answer became clear when I left a tape running overnight, and found that — like small children — he happily babbled to himself, often practising a newly acquired word.

Within a few more weeks, he was learning colours and could correctly identify a red key as being a key — even though I’d shown him only a silver key up till then.

In other words, he knew that a key was a key, whatever its colour. This kind of vocal cognitive ability had never before been demonstrated in non-human animals — not even in chimps. It was a very, very good start.

But not good enough for the scientific community. When I applied for a grant to pay for assistants, bird food and perhaps even a small salary for myself, I was turned down.

Scientific papers I submitted to two key journals — Science and Nature — pinged back almost by return of post. What’s more, I got a letter from the grant assessors that basically implied I was either crazy or on drugs.

I was very upset — but nothing was going to stop me. Not the fact that for seven years I had to move from one temporary laboratory to another, or that I had to rescue a traumatised Alex from at least two floods in the lab, or that our rooms — which couldn’t be sprayed for fear of poisoning him — were always full of cockroaches.

We often spent eight hours a day together. But from the very start of the Alex Project, I’d decided I couldn’t get too attached to him. After all, Alex wasn’t my pet, and I was desperate to keep my scientific credibility intact.

None were as sharp as Alex: Even though Professor Pepperberg eventually began teaching other parrots in her lab none of them seemed to match Alex in intellect or language acquisition

But it was hard — particularly when he picked up ‘I love you’ from students I’d started teaching in the lab. How did he know that those were exactly the right words to use when I was upset?

He was equally capable of mischief. Greys just love to chew things, and Alex liked to chew important things, such as telephone cables (thus disabling two professors’ lines as well as mine) and my lecture slides.

In 1979, I stayed up all night to complete a 20-page application for a grant, then went out to lunch. Big mistake. By the time I got back, Alex had chewed right through it. ‘How could you do such a thing?’ I shrieked.

Alex cowered a little, then looked straight into my eyes and said: ‘I’m sorry ... I’m sorry.’
I’d never taught him these words, so I was utterly astonished. Then I recalled that I’d yelled at him once before, after he knocked a cup of coffee to the floor. Instantly regretting my outburst, I’d apologised.

Clearly, Alex had worked out that ‘I’m sorry’ is associated with defusing a tense, angry and potentially dangerous moment.

By our third year together, I could show him, say, a blue triangle, and he’d correctly answer questions about colour and shape. No bird had ever done this before, and I grew increasingly excited.

But even seven years after I’d acquired Alex, the chorus of ‘Oh, he’s just mimicking’ or ‘He’s just following her cues’ still sounded loudly in my ears.

All right, he sounds convincing, said the critics, but does he really understand what he’s saying?

He certainly did. Let me give you an example: if Alex said, ‘Want grape’ and you gave him a bit of banana, he’d spit it right back at you and repeat insistently, ‘Want grape.’ And he wouldn’t stop till he got what he wanted.

But that’s not science. Science needs tests to be done over and over again — sometimes 60 times or more — before the answer has statistical legitimacy.

Practice: Gradually Alex learned to request items by name. 'Want grape' he would demand, repeating it insistently until he got what he wanted

With the help of students, I put Alex through a rigorous and repetitive series of tests — all of which he passed. However, he let us know just how he felt about this stupefying routine.

Some tests involved putting various objects on a tray and asking questions such as ‘What object is green?’ ‘What shape is purple?’

Eventually, Alex would have had enough. He’d say ‘green’ and then pull at the green felt lining of the tray, hard enough for all the objects to fall off. Or he’d say ‘tray’ and bite the tray. Or he’d turn around and lift his bottom in my direction — a gesture too obvious to need translation.

These were the lighter moments in a crisis-ridden time. For a while, in 1986, it looked as though I was going to lose my modest teaching job. My marriage, which was already rocky, came under even more strain.

‘You’re a failure,’ my husband David told me. ‘Why don’t you close the lab and get a real job?’
I was angry, a barely contained volcano, but it was another four years before I gave up on my marriage and moved to a university in Tucson, Arizona. Alex soon settled down at our new lab. He was less happy, though, when I introduced three new Grey parrots, Kyo, Alo and little Griffin, who was still a baby.

If I came into the lab and said hello to Griffin before acknowledging Alex, he’d sulk the whole day. Determined to show the other parrots that he was the boss, he’d also interrupt my training sessions with them.

‘Say better,’ he’d call out from his corner, which meant Griffin should speak more clearly.

And whenever the other parrots appeared to be struggling, Alex would shout out the correct answer. Or he’d admonish them, saying, ‘You’re wrong’.

They often were: no other parrot was ever quite as sharp as Alex.

We moved from words to numbers and Alex was soon able to count the number of objects on a tray.

Meanwhile, I was finally managing to get the odd scientific paper published. In addition, I’d set up The Alex Foundation, to raise much-needed funds in order to be able to carry out more parrot research.
Word of this spread, and TV crews were regularly showing up — which gave Alex an opportunity to show off. At ease in the limelight, he’d get a certain light in his eyes, metaphorically puff himself up, and perform with aplomb.

After one TV appearance, someone sent him a toy parrot that played songs when you pushed a button. After ignoring it for a few days, Alex suddenly looked at it intently and said: ‘You tickle.’

Then he bent his head towards the toy, expecting it to tickle his neck just as the students did. When nothing happened, he said: ‘You turkey,’ and stalked off in a huff. I decided to enlist Alex as one of Griffin’s trainers, a task he took to enthusiastically. Not only would Alex ask Griffin questions, but he’d also try to prompt him with the answer. ‘Sssss,’ he’d say encouragingly, if the answer happened to be the number seven.

Special bond: 'Alex and I knew each other so well that we sometimes behaved like an old married couple'

By 1998, Alex and I knew each other so well that we sometimes behaved like an old married couple. One day, irked more than usual by the recalcitrance of other scientists, I stormed into the lab.

Before I’d uttered a word, Alex had fixed me with his beady eye and said: ‘Calm down!’

Without pausing to think that this was a remarkable thing for a bird to say, I snapped back: ‘Don’t tell me to calm down!’

Then, in August 2007, after years of financial struggle, I landed a prestigious grant. At last we had the resources we needed!

I was having breakfast at home a few days later when an email arrived. My blood turned to ice as I read the message. ‘I’m saddened to report that one of the parrots was found dead in the bottom of his cage this morning . . . in the back left corner of the room.’

No  . . . no . . . no! Back left corner of the room. That’s Alex’s cage! I was gasping for breath, trying to fight off my rising terror. Maybe it’s not Alex. It can’t be Alex!

Crying hysterically, I somehow managed to drive to the lab. The door to Alex’s cage was open. The cage was empty — his body had already been removed. Wave after wave of pain and despair washed over me.

I’d always loved him, but as a scientist, I’d done my best to keep my attachment in close check for three decades. No longer.

My sense of loss at the passing of my feathered colleague and companion was of an intensity I’d never expected. A huge torrent of love swept all reason before it. I’ve never felt such pain nor shed more tears. For days, I functioned as if on auto-pilot, deprived of sleep and torn by grief.

Meanwhile, a remarkable thing began to happen. Thousands of people began sending me emails about Alex.

The Economist magazine devoted the whole of its obituary page to him. Acres of print in newspapers around the globe recounted the milestones of his life.

Finally, Alex’s incredible achievements had been recognised. 

He’d taught us, above all, that animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than we — and the vast majority of behavioural scientists — had ever dared to believe.  Not bad for a bird with a tiny brain.

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