Alex: The Einstein of the Animal Kingdom

Video highlights from GENIUS

Bird brains

Humans have the ability to learn, we’re self-aware and conscious of other's thoughts and feelings. We’re creative and can think abstractedly, problem solve and learn languages.

Although these traits are thought to be uniquely human, there have been animals who have shown similar traits and personalities. One such animal, Alex the Parrot, a 31-year-old African grey parrot, knew more than 100 words, could count and recognise colours and shapes.

Hailed as the Einstein of birds, Alex the parrot was a superstar of the animal kingdom. A hit on TV, science reports and in the news he was a source of constant debate. Alex’s ability to speak and learn language was remarkable. When Alex was bought from a pet store in 1977 by scientist; Irene Pepperberg there was little hope that any bird would learn to communicate after a few unsuccessful attempts with pigeons. 

But Dr Pepperberg managed to teach Alex 150 words in different set categories. She also managed to teach Alex how to count and recognise shapes and sounds.

The work revolutionised the way we think of bird brains. That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains — at least Alex’s — with some awe, said Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College.

But Alex was a point of tension for the scientific community. While some believed he displayed a human approach to learning, others warned that Alex was only communicating in basic expressions and did not exhibit human logic or critical thinking.

There’s no evidence of recursive logic, and without that, you can’t work with digital numbers or more complex human grammar,” said David Premack, from the University of Pennsylvania.

Pepperberg used creative teaching methods based on the bird species' social attributes. The Grey Parrot is a particularly social bird, so Pepperberg would hire another trainer to compete with the bird for a treat. Alex learnt to mimic the trainer's actions and words. He then worked closer with trainers to perfect his pronunciation.

Alex seemed to express anger and frustration, showing the same cognitive ability as trained chimps. Alex the parrot, has inspired Pepperberg to do more research and has since started similar training with two other parrots called Arthur and Griffin. 

Alex and his trainer, Pepperberg had a special bond and friendship that spanned 31 years. 

Just before Alex died he turned to his trainer and said:

“You be good, see you tomorrow. I Love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next day.

Certainly more human than bird.

Now find out the story of Albert Einstein by watching Genius

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