Alex began making demands shortly after I met him for the first time. “Wanna go chair?” he said, his voice raspy. It wasn’t the most courteous way to welcome a new guest, but Alex is an African grey parrot, so it was understandable. I was not offended.

Mr. Jesse Gordon. A student who works at the shop where I met Alex grabbed him hint and took him to a chair. Alex spoke out again moments afterwards. “Wanna showah,” he added in his Boston accent, seeking a shower. He puffed out his feathers and watched Gordon impatiently until she misted him with a water bottle.

Alex works at a lab at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. I stopped over last spring to listen to Alex and two other talkative parrots, Griffin and Wart. I also visited with Professor Irene Pepperberg, an animal behaviourist who has been researching parrot communication since she purchased Alex from a pet store 27 years ago.


Parrots have long been recognised for their capacity to communicate. When Pepperberg started studying with Alex in the 1970s, many scientists thought parrots were just excellent mimics who couldn’t grasp what they were saying. Language was supposed to be a characteristic that was unique to humans.

Pepperberg set out to disprove the scientists, and Alex proved to be the ideal student. She showed that Alex understands what he’s talking about with a series of well devised tests. He can now comprehend around 100 spoken words and utilises them to make requests and respond to queries.

His vocabulary varies from “green bean,” a favourite food, to “Alley Bird,” his nickname since he has difficulty pronouncing the x in Alex. He can count to six and recognise seven colours and five shapes. He is aware of the terms “same” and “different.” If he is given a red and a blue block, for example, and asked what makes them different, he will say “Color.”

Alex also knows that items may be classified according to their colour and form. If he is shown a jumble of different coloured balls, blocks, and triangles and asked how many green blocks there are, he can accurately respond. In other words, he can mentally organise the things by form and colour in order to provide an accurate answer. According to Pepperberg, this activity requires cognitive capacities comparable to those of a 4- to 6-year-old human kid. Perception, memory, and judgement are examples of cognitive capacities.


In other aspects, Alex resembles a kid. Pepperberg has sometimes left a tape recorder running late at night while Alex is alone in the lab. She noticed that he spends weeks practising new phrases in solitude before speaking them in public. “Human children participate in solitary sound play all the time,” Pepperberg remarked.

The day I went. Alex was fatigued and didn’t appear to want to show off his language abilities. According to Pepperberg, Alex has the brainpower of a 5-year-old in certain areas, but the emotional maturity of a 2-year-old. To put it another way, he’s really self-centered!

Alex is often evaluated on his language abilities, and he gets the correct answers around 80% of the time. Why not every time? When he’s bored or annoyed, he repeatedly repeats all the erroneous answers—something he could only do if he knew the proper answers but didn’t want to cooperate. “If the answer is ‘green,'” Pepperberg said, “he’ll tell us all the other possibilities.”


Pepperberg started working with two other parrots, Griffin, now 9, and Wart, 5, some years ago to demonstrate that Alex isn’t only an extremely bright bird. The younger birds don’t yet know as many words as Alex, but they’re always learning new ones.

Despite the fact that all three parrots are African greys, I was impressed by their individuality. Griffin is hesitant and apprehensive, whereas Alex is assertive and demanding. Griffin was unkempt when I arrived since Pepperberg had lately left town. “Griffin gets unhappy and chops off his feathers when I go,” she complained. Wart, like a naughty kid, is curious.


Despite their distinct personalities, all three birds have shown their ability to converse using human language. Are they speaking in their native tongue? That is a tough question to answer. According to Pepperberg, this is because researchers cannot agree on a conventional definition of human language.

Parrots, according to Pepperberg, have their own lexicon of squawks and cries for information exchange. That mechanism developed to be effective in the wild. In this regard, parrots have a complex communication system that is “not merely a bad replica of human language,” according to Pepperberg.

According to Pepperberg, when utilising words to interact with humans, parrots can make specific requests and answer inquiries, but the birds aren’t capable of conducting a full conversation. She refers to their conversation as two-way communication and explains that “You cannot do an interview with them. They just do not have the same level of communication that we have.”

Nonetheless, Pepperberg’s parrots have shown that a lot happens in their walnut-sized brains. “Talk better!” Alex advises Griffin when he fails to enunciate new words correctly.

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