A scholar’s 31-year-experiment in avian learning had spectacular results
Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. By Irene M. Pepperberg. Collins, 232 pp., $23.95.
By Janice Harayda
Copycat titles like Alex & Me usually appear on weak imitations of the books that inspired them – in this case, the bestselling Marley and Me, John Grogan’s memoir of his wayward dog. Not Irene Pepperberg’s true story of her 31 years with an African Grey parrot that, on the evidence of this book, was the Einstein of the bird world.
Like Marley and Me, Alex & Me is an affectionate and entertaining portrait of a larger-than-life creature. But Pepperberg’s memoir is in some ways more interesting because it tells two stories at once.
The first tale involves the life and death of an extraordinary parrot who followed his owner to colleges from Tucson to Boston, where she did research on his ability to learn. Alex could recognize numbers from one to six and and do simple addition. He could identify objects by color, shape and material. He seems to have grasped concepts such as “smaller” and “larger” and the idea of object permanence (that a thing still exists when hidden from view), which children generally acquire during the first year of life.
Alex’s most endearing trait was that he learned to express his wishes in ways that were as forceful as they were colorful. He bombarded Pepperberg’s student assistants with requests: “Want corn … Want nut … Wanna go shoulder … Wanna go gym.” During lab tests, he corrected parrots who responded incorrectly (“You’re wrong”) or answered indistinctly (“Say better”). Yet he seemed to sense when he had gone too far, a realization he expressed by saying “I’m sorry.”
The second story Pepperberg tells – nearly as interesting – involves her efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to be taken seriously by her peers despite two formidable obstacles. First, she was a woman when recruiters still asked female scientists questions such as, “What kind of birth control are you using?” And she was fighting the prevailing scholarly belief that animals were automatons who lacked cognitive abilities.
Pepperberg parries inflammatory topics such as, “Did Alex have language?” and instead speaks of his ability to “label” objects. She also avoids some obvious questions – notably when she tells us that Alex would have an autopsy but not what it revealed about his walnut-sized brain.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the book. Pepperberg writes in a lively, conversational style as engaging as Grogan’s. Yet she provides enough scientific detail to persuade you that something remarkable happened during her work with her adored parrot. Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”
Best line: “Alex became quite a fixture at the vets’, talking to everyone who had time to stop and listen. His cage was right next to the accountant’s desk. The night before I was due to take him to Tucson, the accountant had to stay late, working on the books. ‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
“He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
“ ‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
“This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”
Worst line: Pepperberg quotes a Guardian obituary: “Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.” The evidence in Alex & Me doesn’t support the Guardian‘s claim, so it isn’t clear why it’s quoted. Alex could label numbers up to six. If the Guardian claim were true, the average U.S. president couldn’t tell you the address of the White House.
Sample chapter titles: “Alex’s First Labels,” “Alex Goes High-Tech,” “What Alex Taught Me.”
Published: October 2008
Watch a video of Pepperberg interacting with Alex on the HarperCollins site.
Furthermore: Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis and teaches animal cognition at Harvard. She also wrote The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.
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© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.