I just came out with a blog post called bird brains which covers multiple bird species and shows their intelligence with support of a few characteristics each. Upon my research, the most common result for intelligent birds was overwhelmingly Alex the parrot, so I figured it would be worth while to learn more about arguably animal most famous for their intelligence who passed away in 2007.
Alex was a African Grey parrot Psittacus erithacus who was the model organsim for Irene Pepperberg for 30 years. She purchased him when he was a baby and made sure the worker at the pet store selected the bird to ensure there was nothing special selected for. In order to perform studies with Alex, Irene and Alex developed a form of two way vocal communication which involved a simplified form of the english language. The simplification made questions and answers as short as possible, instead of saying “what color is this” or “what material is this made of”, “what color” and “what matter” were used “what material is this made of” became “what matter” was used instead limit how many words Alex needed to know. That isn’t to say Alex didn’t have an extended vocabulary of roughly 150 words, from what he learned from Pepperberg’s studies from what he picked up from workers talking around the facilities. Alex even created some lables himself by combining terms such as banana and cherry “banery” as a way to describe red apples. This led to the debate of whether or not Alex used language, as we define it, to communicate through out testing, but there were many other studies Alex was also involved in.
Type into “grey parrot” into google scholar and the only results you will see are by Dr. Pepperberg and her studies with Alex. This has lead to the discovery of many characteristics Alex may or may not possess. One example of this would be having a concept of zero. A concept seen in few species, and did not even appear in some early math systems in ancient human cilvilizations. In various studies, Pepperberg would ask “how many” referring to how many of a quantity were present, and on a day where Alex didn’t want to cooperate in testing he was asked about how many of an object was present, the correct answer was three, Alex said “none“. Oddly enough this day that Alex didn’t want to cooperate led to many future tests which showed he knew when there weren’t any objects he was being asked about, this occurred on days he was cooperating I should note. It is not known to the extent that Alex could understand the concept, but it is still a fascinating trait to observe. Alex did have fairly sophisticated math skills as well, being able to count and even add in values up to six.
One of Alex’s more infamous quotes is unsurprisingly one of the most debated events to occur in the field. On an occasion when a mirror was placed in front of Alex, he asked “what color?”. From what I’ve found this is the only case of an animal asking a question about oneself, one reason may because so few animals have the ability to speak and if they do speak, it’s unlikely they had a vocabulary as vast as Alex’s. Alex reportedly asked the question six times and after each time he was told that he was grey which is when he learned the color. Some scientists believe that he got lucky and asked a random question at the right moment in time, but that’s an opinion which will likely be debated about for a many, many years. To be fair, Alex did ask other questions which have never been asked by other animals, as he asked what a carrot is after eating it, and would ask Irene where she was going.
The findings with Alex’s study will forever change how the animal brain is viewed and how future studies will be conducted. While I’m sure there will be many looking to prove that Alex wan’t as smart as we want to believe, there will surely be others fighting the opposite. It is unlikely another animal will compare to what Alex achieved for many years and because of this we will always be asking what could have been if Alex didn’t pass away prematurely.