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

7 mins read

Alex, the African gray parrot, have you heard of him? Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s collaborator and test subject for 30 years during her research into animal psychology, notably that of birds, was this revolutionary bird.

Birds were not thought to be clever animals before she began her research with Alex (on account of their walnut-sized brains). In reality, the term “bird brain” was frequently used as a derogatory epithet for insanity.

Dr. Pepperberg’s research, on the other hand, revolutionized the area by demonstrating the African gray parrot’s cognitive ability through a variety of cognitive tasks.

Alex had accumulated several skills that were usually regarded as above animal reasoning by his death in 2007. He had demonstrated that the intelligence of some birds is on the level with that of dolphins and primates. These animals are traditionally regarded as some of the world’s most intelligent species.

An African Gray Parrot’s Training

In June 1977, when he was around 12–13 months old, Pepperberg bought Alex (an abbreviation for “avian learning experiment”) from a local pet shop in Chicago. She intended to demonstrate that any bird could do the tasks she was preparing for them. So that there would be no doubt as to whether she had chosen a bird based on any demonstrated unique skill, she had him chosen by a store employee to ensure that there would be no controversy.

She began training him with the model/rival methodology she coined. Alex would watch two of his trainers engaging during this training. A team member would serve as a role model for the desired conduct, making him or her a competitor for the other trainer’s attention and the reward for the bird’s behavior.

The two trainers would also trade places frequently to ensure Alex understood a collaborative effort. They were able to create two-way communication with him due to their efforts.

Dr. Pepperberg observed that as Alex’s knowledge grew, he would contradict his trainers when they commit mistakes in conversation. He would occasionally function as Pepperberg’s helper in later years, serving as a model and a competitor to other parrots in the lab while Pepperberg was absent. He would also practice words on his own.

Achievements of Alex the Parrot

Alex had been taught to distinguish a wide range of colors, items, materials, and behaviors. He knew over 100 words with which to do so. He was familiar with at least 50 unique objects and could count quantities of up to six at a time. It was even claimed that the parrot understood the notion of zero.

He could recognize objects even though they were different from others he had seen before, owing to the clear comprehension of his employed terms. For example, suppose Alex was presented with a yellow plastic key.

In that case, he could tell it apart from a metal key based on color and material but still classify both as keys. He was asked questions like What tone? What material? And What structure? When he was shown an object, he answered them with a high degree of accuracy.

Due to the need for a considerable quantity of repetition for statistical objectives, Alex became bored with the tasks. He would regularly attempt to introduce new variants to the exercises by answering with purposefully wrong replies or by answering Dr. Pepperberg’s questions with queries of his own to something he would then respond to.

It was at this point that his witty personality shone through. His capacity to comprehend and ask questions was remarkable in and of itself, as he was the first (and only) non-human to do so.

When Alex asked an existential question regarding his appearance, it was one of his most remarkable moments. He would be given a mirror and asked, “What color?” after examining himself for a few moments. In the following weeks, he learned the term “gray,” which corresponded to the color of his feathers, after having it spoken to him six times.

A Lasting Impression

On September 6, 2007, Alex passed away unexpectedly. He was 31 years old, significantly younger than a parrot’s typical predicted lifespan in captivity. A few farewell words were said during his nightly goodbyes with Dr. Pepperberg, which was the last thing he was known to say to anyone. After she put him in his cage, he said, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

The loss grieved Dr. Pepperberg and her colleagues. Alex’s death even sparked a series of pieces in major newspapers, such as The New York Times, that honored him and his achievements. On the other hand, his death did not signal the end of their research. Her research with other parrots has continued. She is currently working with two parrots, Athena and Griffin, to further her knowledge.

Thanks to Pepperberg’s studies with Alex, ornithologists have discovered that bird brains are more complicated than previously imagined.

As a result of this discovery, scientists are now investigating the capabilities of different sorts of birds. According to the researchers, the modeling strategies employed in teaching Alex and the other parrots have also been shown to be beneficial outside of the animal kingdom, particularly in the training of youngsters with learning difficulties.

Are you interested to learn more about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg’s research? Visit The Alex Foundation’s website now!

[H/T]: My Modern Met

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.