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This African Gray Parrot Is the First Animal To Ever Ask an Existential Question


Have you ever heard of Alex the African gray parrot? This revolutionary bird was the colleague and test subject of Dr. Irene Pepperberg for 30 years during her research into animal psychology—particularly that of birds. Before she began her studies with Alex, birds weren’t considered to be intelligent animals (on account of their walnut-sized brains). In fact, the term “bird brain” was often used as an insult for stupidity.


However, Dr. Pepperberg’s studies completely changed the field as she demonstrated the capabilities of the African gray parrot through various exercises in cognition.


By the time of his death in 2007, Alex had amassed a variety of skills generally thought beyond animal reasoning. He had proven that some birds’ intelligence is even on par with that of dolphins and primates—typically considered to be some of the world’s smartest animals.


The Training of an African Gray Parrot


Pepperberg purchased Alex (an acronym for “avian learning experiment”) from a pet store in Chicago in June 1977, when he was about 12–13 months old. She had a store employee pick him out for her so that there could be no speculation as to whether she had picked a bird based on some demonstrated special ability. She wanted to prove that any bird would be capable of the tasks she was preparing to prove them with.


She began training him using a method she dubbed the model/rival technique. For this training, Alex would observe two of his trainers interacting. One of them would be the model for the desired behavior, which would also make them the bird’s rival for the other trainer’s attention and the reward. The two trainers would also switch positions often so that Alex could understand that it was an interactive process. In this manner, they were able to facilitate two-way communication with him.


As time progressed and Alex became more adept in his knowledge, Dr. Pepperberg reported that he would even correct his trainers at times if they made mistakes in conversation. He would practice words on his own as well, and, in his later years, he would also act as Pepperberg’s assistant every so often—taking on the role of model and rival to help teach other parrots in the lab.

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