The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots by Irene M. Pepperberg Download (read online) free eBook

The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots

Can a parrot understand complex concepts and mean what it says? Since the early 1900s, most studies on animal-human communication have focused on great apes and a few cetacean species. Birds were rarely used in similar studies on the grounds that they were merely talented mimics–that they were, after all, “birdbrains.” Experiments performed primarily on pigeons in Skinner

Jul 28, 2013

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Tgift, really fun but dense book about Alex the parrot and the codes he learnt to communicate with humans. It was written while he was still alive, so it’s not fully up to date. The writing is also quite dense, using lots of psychological ideas and terminology, although Pepperberg explains these as she goes.

I might have preferred a more anecdotal book, but I loved how authoritative the book could be. The experiments Alex participated in seem to show at a fundamental level that non-mammal species

I might have preferred a more anecdotal book, but I loved how authoritative the book could be. The experiments Alex participated in seem to show at a fundamental level that non-mammal species can learn advanced cognitive processes and even the codes of language. Language is the subject of most of the book. Alex’s language was intentional, referential and creative. He could count and knew the difference between different colours, matters and sizes. He even knew which qualities were colours and which were matters, e.g. – he knew that blue and green are colours, but metal and hide were matters, and that these are different kinds of quality.

Pepperberg compares Alex’s abilities to those of children at various levels, but also to the great apes and dolphins. The book is sufficiently technical that in the introductions to each of the sections you barely go a sentence without a citation. That was actually another really great part of the book for me, Pepperberg obviously knows cognitive psychology really well, and since she starts with the basics each time I got a real overview of cognitive psychological theory.

The only trouble with the book is it was a bit dense. There were parts I hardly understood, and subtle distinctions which I think escaped me. I expect I’m not the target audience for the book though, so that’s okay.

Four quotes, summing up the best parts:

{Piaget’s cognitive development conservation tests on birds}
Fred, the macaw, was most cooperative; he was fully flighted and flew to the test site when experimenters entered his house. He provided an arresting interruption during Task 13: Rather than repeat the task, he flew from the test site to the floor to search beneath the coffee table, where he had seen his owner place a seed cup before testing began.

When Griffin was 33 weeks old, his food preferences stabilized, so we could test this possibility [whether he would be surprised when his favourite snack was switched]. On his first trial, we presented a cashew (a favored item) but hid a less desired Bird Diet nugget during a successive invisible displacement. Griffin upended the final box and stared at the pellet. He immediately turned over the other boxes, then ran to the experimenters. He repeated this behavior on a trial with a different box as the final hiding place. We then replicated the procedure without substitution; Griffin uncovered and ate the cashew without continuing his search.

Before testing Alex, we reacquainted him with the procedures because he had not had such tasks in several years. On a standard Task 14 trial, he promptly chose the last screen and obtained a cashew. We then administered Task 16: After upending the box and finding a pellet, Alex turned from the apparatus to the experimenters, narrowing his eyes to slits, a behavior we have come to interpret as “anger.”‘ To ensure cooperation on the next trial, we gave him the expected nut. His reaction to finding a pellet on the final trial was similar to his reaction on the first, except that he banged his beak on the table-another sign of frustration or displeasure.

{true referent language vs conceptual or operant association}
I had two reasons for teaching “want” and for studying how Alex acquired and used the term. First, I needed to determine whether, when he incorrectly identified objects with labels for more favored items, he was attempting to obtain treats rather than making errors (see Chapter 3). Specifically, if I could separate requests from errors, I would have a better indication of Alex’s labeling capacity (Premack 1976). Second, I wanted to determine the extent of his communicative competence-a term generally defined as the ability to convey intent and to respond to the intent of others (Fay and Schuler 1980; see Smith 1991 for a discussion in terms of information processing). Could Alex convey his wants and needs by means of what to him was an artificial communication system? Given that his most frequent identification errors involved labels for treats (e.g., foods not freely available, such as nuts) or items with which he generally interacted for extended periods of time (e.g., corks he chewed to shreds), his behavior suggested some level of intent and thus communicative competence. Also, he would often toss an object he had identified and received from a trainer and immediately produce the label for a more favored object or food. Alex thus seemed a good subject for studying whether a nonhuman might use “want” in a referential, intentional way.

I also suggest that some spontaneous combinations of signing chimpanzees-such as use of “water-bird” on the appearance of a swan (Fouts and Rigby 1977)-fit into the contextual/
conceptual category. The chimpanzee has some concept of what constitutes a bird (wings, beak, etc.), of what constitutes water (wetness, etc.), and the context (interaction with humans) in which labeling occurs. Without further information about how such a term is used, however, we cannot designate it as referential.

{Linguistic creativity}
One incident, involving his response to apples, nevertheless suggests that Alex has some capacity for intentional creativity (Pepperberg 1990c). We were examining the effect of another parrot’s presence during training and were limited to using a colleague’s pet-one that did not talk and would attend only if we used her favorite food, apples. We thus made an exception to our rule against training food labels, and in fall 1984 began training “apple.” At that time Alex already used the labels “banana,” “cherry,” and “grape.” During formal sessions, he began to produce a /p/. At the end of the season for fresh apples, he refused these fruits, and his vocalizations remained at this level. We thus removed apples from training and the laboratory. Apples were reintroduced in the spring, were eaten, and /p/ reappeared in the first training session. During the second week of training, however, Alex looked at the fruit, said, “Banerry … I want banerry,” and snatched a bite. He not only persistently identified the fruit as “banerry” in subsequent sessions, but also slowed production and sharpened his elocution (“ban-err-eeee”), much as trainers do when teaching a new label (Pepperberg 1990c).

{Fun anecdotes}
My students and I have also successfully mapped many of Alex’s requests for information (Pepperberg 1990c). Thus whether or not his queries “What’s that?” “What color?” and so forth, are intentional, we treat them as such. Although Alex repeatedly asked about the shape of wooden plant stakes (“long” wood), round objects (“no-corner”), or the label for the board above his gym (“shelf’), he never acquired the appropriate labels. He did, however, learn “grey” by querying a student about the color of his reflection in a mirror (Pepperberg 1983b), and began uttering “rock” after querying us about a lava-stone beak conditioner he repeatedly tossed from the top of his cage. We answered his query (“What’s that?”) about covers in the Piagetian object permanence study (Chapter 10) with “box”; he produced “bock” (Pepperberg and Kozak 1986). “Bock” and “box” are now used interchangeably to label square or rectangular containers. After asking about the vegetable we were eating and its color, he began to ask for “carrot” and acquired functional use of that label and of “orange.” He identified novel “grey” and “orange” objects, on first trials, without subsequent training (Pepperberg 1990c); few errors were made on later identifications (Table 13.2).6

John Baker

Mar 22, 2008

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it was amazing

Thoughtfully and thoroughly researched, entertaining, yet extremeley academically written. Not an easy read, but for those interested in animal cognition, this is a must have. Dr. Irene Pepperberg has, and always will be my hero in the field of animal psychology. R.I.P., Alex.