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African Grey Parrots: English Language and Interspecies Communications - Talk to the Animals

Updated on November 27, 2012

Parrots Are a Girl's Best Friend

©2011; Patty inglish MS, Preventive Medicine. All rights reserved.


Alex and Me

Author: Irene M. Pepperberg, his best friend
Published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
232 Pages

This book is good enough that I recently read it again, after writing several animal Hubs for HubMob. Alex the Grey Parrot proved that parrots, all of whom have small brains, can develop cognitively to the point of a 100+ word vocabulary, counting, color-naming, the concepts of bigger-smaller, more-fewer, absence, tomorrow, and others; two-way conversations, joke playing, and more. He was working on understanding optical illusions when he died unexpectedly at age 31, much less than the average lifespan for his species.

Perhaps Alex's brain could not have held much more and his behavior would have become "mentally ill" if he had continued to become increasingly intelligent -- To be sure, a cold sentiment, but perhaps true. However, millions of people mourned him. In his absence since early autumn 2007, we want to have back the owed 20-more years of his personality and spirit. We were robbed.

Lands of the African Grey Parrot


An Adopted Friend

At the age of about one year, the pet store owner where Alex lived chose him at random for Irene Pepperberg to train in studies of language acquisition and interspecies communications. Very shortly, he became a friend to her and her staff. Partly because he was so likable and entertaining, he received 10 - 12 hours of attention every day and this created more ability in his small brain. He learned to get what he wanted from his environment and the words and phrases he spoke did this for him. Critics call it mimickry and Dr. Pepperberg calls it "not a language", but many others think that Alex held conversations,

The same happens with human babies. Pardon the grammar, but the kids (other than developmentally delayed) who are spoken to, read to, made to laugh, and stimulated with games, jokes, art, dance, and music (all used with Alex) as often as possible by parents and others from the very day they are born are the most ready to read, write, speak their local native language and perform mathematics. These things help the developmentally delayed as well. This is all supported by Kennedy Center For the Arts research study results to the same tune.

The activities named above help inordinately, no matter how often or who cuts or wants to cut music, arts, and physical movement/exercize/sports activties from schools. Any assertion in any legislation or edict to cut these things as a "waste of time and money" is propaganda of falsehoods used to channel money elsewhere. What these cuts do, as a matter of fact, is to make people less able to think critically and less able to excel in a number of fields as they move through childhood to adult years. It holds people back.

At the same time, some agenda encourages families to spend large money in non-school sports, dance, fine arts, and music training. Interestingly, these off campus training businesses are not earning the revenues they would like in their many towns. Add the sedentarianism of computer games, Internet, and smartPhone texting in grades K-12, and we have a health and problem-solving deficit. Who may want this to happen? It may be a useful question.

Grey Parrots (Psittacus erythacus) in Cameroon


The truth of the power of the activities mentioned about is evident in the role they play in Phsyical Therapy and Occupational Therapy adminstered to the physically injured, MR/DD populations, the brain-injured populace, the autistic, and the emotionally traumatized at least; and probably more gorups. Applying them produces positive results along a range of degree.

In China, these powerful activities prepare children to outpace much of the rest of the world in academics and the arts. I have worked with autism spectrum, ADD/ADHD, MR/DD, and closed head trauma clients and seen the positive results myself. Not every time, but most of the time. Moreover, the injured brain and the whole CNS continues to heal as long as that brain can live and the body support it. I remind us all that Christopher Reeve had regained movement in his hands and was just able to walk under water on his own power after much therapy, but repiratory infections ended his life before he could heal fully. His foundation continues the work.The CNS is a miraculous electrical creation. Language aquisition and use is only one function of it. We really have no idea how much any CNS can accomplish, given stimulation and time.

An African Grey Parrot received 31 years of intense attention and, bluntly, he became a 5-year-old human to the humans that loved him. This places a different understanding to the notion of Old Testament assignment of humanity as mindful stewards of animal life, and not as tyrant kings. It gives a greater depth to the understanding of Native American conservation and the ceremonies used to thank animals for giving up their lives as sources for food, clothing, shelter, tools, and weapons. Rather than worship, I see this as not only thanksgiving, but a way of slowing down activities to enforce time for thought about them and their consequences -- There is no thought in a poacher cutting off a rhino's horn raggedly and leaving it to bleed to death, for instance.

Humans are still the top of the intelligence chain and I think have the responsibility of avoiding the frivolous misuse and waste of other lives. Indeed, animal abuse is illegal in many US cities, with attached jail time. 

Inside the Book

Dr. Pepperberg received email notices of additional funding awards from US and European sources for her work with staff and parrots one morning, just before she received an email about Alex's death. Alex the friend, and Alex the most well trained bird in this field of research was unexpectedly gone. Devastation is not a strong enough word to deal with this. Alex was expected to live into the doctor's senior years, but was no more.

Every friend one has understands some small thing or two about one that no other being does or can. Losing that friend is a little death.

Alex and Me Chapter Titles

My Wonderful Life Moment
Alex's First Labels
- Alex learns what we call vocabulary, nouns certainly.
Alex and Me, the Vagabonds - Alex and Irene moved from university to university on a number of grants, while scientific critics decried her findings and someone that should have been her best friend told her repeatedly to "get a real job."
What's A Banerry? - Alex makes up his own words and they make sense.
Alex and Friends
Alex Goes Hi-Tech
- The development of computer systems to examine and reproduce language acquisition is astounding. Small entertainment centers for parrots left at home alone all day is another useful invention.
The Next Horizon
What Alex Taught Me

Many comments on the Internet admonish others that Alex is the best evidence for humans to become vegetarian. Others state that humans are less important than thought and that animals are much more important. Others yet say that animals are more important than humans. And proverbially, we probably all know humans that prefer the company of animals to other humans.

Animals are indeed important and many are more intelligent than previously thought. Abusing or eating an animal-being that can hold a conversation is wrong to human logic. Abusing any animal or human is already wrong. I would never eat a parrot, but as Alton Brown says, a lobster is a bug. I don't think lobsters will ever speak or snap out Morse Code.

So what animals communicate with humans in tangible ways? Research and our own experiences give us at least those on this list:

  • Gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans
  • Parrots
  • Elephants
  • Whales
  • Dolphins and porpoises
  • Dogs and cats

Alex and Mepresents many sides of the language research project backed by The Alex Foundation yet today. Younger birds Griffin and Wart and some others carry on training. None has shown language behaviors and understanding as well as Alex yet, but the oldest is about only 14 at this writing. He (Griffin) and Alex used to play a game at dinner with Dr. Pepperberg, eating a few green beans from her meal. Each might ask for a green bean and then Alex would somehow start a game in which Griff would finish the phrase each time: green...bean... green...bean... green...bean. Lab staff people later did it in restaurants to surprise waiters.

Read this book and you'll think that Alex had to have known what he was doing and saying. You'll start looking at your own pets for signs of practical jokes and at other animals for clues to the workings of their minds.


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