Alex and Me: Our Knowledge of Animal Intelligence

I recently finished reading Irene Pepperburg’s most recent book, Alex and Me. When Irene Pepperburg first started working with Alex, many people scoffed and laughed at her. Parrots were thought of as “bird brains.” While it might be possible to teach them to repeat back answers to simple questions, the bird wasn’t actually “thinking” or “reasoning.” However, in Alex and Me, Irene Pepperburg repeatedly proves her critics wrong.

If you’re not familiar with Alex, he was quite the parrot. Irene Pepperburg studied animal intelligence and learning with Alex, an African grey parrot, for 31 years until his death in 2007. The book is an entertaining portrayal of Alex’s life, including how his training helped us discover more about the remarkable intelligence of birds.

Irene Pepperburg’s method for training Alex began with model-rival techniques. Alex would watch Irene Pepperburg teach something to another human. Then, he’d get a chance to participate as well. He would watch a human answer questions about colors and shapes, while Irene Pepperburg rewarded correct responses and corrected wrong answers. After observing for awhile, he’d be given a chance to answer questions as well.

Alex had quite a complex understanding of how to describe the world around him. For example, if presented with two yellow wooden squares, he would be able to answer correctly the follow questions: What color? How many? What material? What shape? The objects were not just associated with a single response. Rather, he could examine an object and then answer a variety of questions about it.

There is still debate among scientists about if Alex and other African grey parrots are truly “thinking.” However, whatever you call it, whether thinking or high-level complex discrimination, Alex’s accomplishments demonstrate a very high level of learning. One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it shows just how little we understand about how animals learn and how much an animal is capable of learning. What more would Alex have accomplished if he had lived another 30 years?

Animals are capable of learning a great deal, more than most people realize. Many people perceive animals as dumb or less intelligent. However, in many cases, this is not because the animal is dumb, but because we know so little about their actual ability to learn. For instance, a simple goldfish is perfectly capable of learning a few tricks! Most animals are a lot more capable than we give them credit for.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in birds, parrots, animal training, or animal intelligence. It’s interesting and informative and packed with fascinating stories. I felt like I got to know Alex and was continually amazed as I followed along through his life. Below I’ve included a short two minute youtube clip of Alex answering some basic questions and showing off his intelligence.

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