Mathematical Abilities of an African Grey Parrot

These are my notes from some of the lectures I attended at the 38th annual convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, which I attended in May 2012.

On the first day of the ABAI convention, I was able to attend a very interesting lecture by Harvard psychologist Irene Pepperberg. You might be familiar with Pepperberg because of her work with African grey parrots, particularly a parrot named Alex. If you’re not familiar with Pepperberg, I encourage you to also check out my review of her book Alex and Me.

Irene Pepperberg talked about research she did with Alex on numerical concepts, such as counting, adding, and even the concept of zero. Pepperberg began working with African grey parrots in the 1970s, when most people were still skeptical about the intelligence of birds. However, Pepperberg and Alex were able to prove many skeptics wrong. Alex learned to identify over 100 objects, 7 colors, and 5 shapes. He could also answer what questions, category questions (such as size, material, shape, color, or number), and same/different questions.

How do you train a parrot to label objects?

To train Alex, Irene Pepperberg used the model-rival technique, which was developed by Dietmar Todt. This training method uses two humans to teach new words or concepts to a bird. For example, to teach a bird to label a desired object, the first person starts by holding up the object. The second person (the model) is given object after saying the name of the object. The bird (who really, really wants the object) observes this exchange. The bird also observes the second person saying the wrong word or phrase and not receiving the chosen object. After several repetitions, the trainer and model switch roles. From watching these exchanges, the bird learns which words produce which objects. The bird is then given a chance to say the word and receive the desired object.

However, Pepperberg emphasized that with this method the trainer still must start with small approximations and shape up the correct vocalizations. At first, the trainer gives the bird the object for any vocalization that remotely resembled the name of the object. Over time, the trainer only accepts vocalizations that are closer and closer to the correct word.

How do you train a parrot to do math?

The first numbers that Irene Pepperberg taught Alex were the numbers 3 and 4. Pepperberg started here, rather than at 1, because Alex already knew how to label triangles as “3-corners” and squares as “4-corners.” After this, Pepperberg and her team next taught Alex the numbers 2 and 5, and then the numbers 1 and 6.

Interestingly, the number 1 was one of the hardest numbers for Alex to learn. This is because when presented with just one object, Alex was likely to name the object (such as “key” or “wood”) rather than answering the question “How many?” This is the result of a competing learning history. Since Alex had already learned to name certain objects, it made it challenging to teach him that he could respond to the same object in a different way. The key to this puzzle is for the animal to learn to pay attention to the other instructions “How many?” or “What is it?” rather than just looking at the object. With training, Alex was able to learn the concept of 1 object.

Moving on to advanced mathematics

Alex demonstrated his concept of numbers in many ways. For example, if given a tray with objects of several different colors and several different shapes, Alex could answer questions regarding how many objects were a certain color or shape. He could also answer the reverse question. If there were 6 blue objects and 4 red objects on a tray, Alex could answer “blue,” when asked “What color six?”

Alex also had a basic idea of the concept of zero. Interestingly, this was not directly trained as a math concept. Alex had been taught to answer “none” for same/different questions about attributes of objects. One day, on his own, he generalized this concept to some of the mathematical problems he was working on. However, Pepperberg explained in her lecture that Alex likely had a zero-like concept, rather than a complete understanding of the concept of zero. When first learning to add 0 + 0, he would often answer “one” (the smallest real number), rather than “none.” Interestingly, Pepperberg explained that young children perform similarly when they are first learning the concept of zero.

Alex: A quick learner

Irene Pepperberg’s lecture was filled with fun stories, anecdotes, and even video clips from her work with Alex. Alex had quite the personality and there was never a dull moment around the research lab. For instance, she told one story about an experience working with another parrot in the lab named Griffin. She snapped twice at Griffin, wanting him to say “two.” He ignored her. She snapped twice more. He still ignored her, but Alex said “four.” When she snapped twice more, Alex said “six.” Experiences such as this helped show Pepperberg that Alex was actually counting, rather than just identifying different sized groups of objects as numbers.

Pepperberg ended her lecture by discussing how numbers and mathematical abilities are a learning process. People must learn counting and other math concepts, but we learn these things quickly because of our cultural and social structure. There are some humans cultures, however, that do not have concepts of counting or number lines. Parrots do not naturally learn to count in the wild. However, their biology makes them good subjects for studying math and other advanced concepts that we usually reserve only for intelligent humans. Even if they don’t study mathematics, intelligence and the ability to learn concepts is important for parrots in the wild because parrots live in a complex social and ecological environment and also live a long time.

Alex had an amazing concept of the English language, approximately the communication ability of a 2 or 3-year-old child. He could label many objects and make use of basic concepts. He could use words to express his wants and needs. Alex also understood the appropriate context for emotional sayings, such as “sorry.” As Pepperberg remarked, it is pretty funny that we consider animals stupid if they can’t learn to speak English, even though we are barely beginning to crack the meaning of many complex bird songs.

For more information about Irene Pepperberg and her work with Alex, I encourage you to check out the book Alex and Me.

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