alex the parrot

Many parrots kept as pets also imitate familiar sounds, like the family dog barking or an alarm clock beeping. But Pepperberg taught Alex referential speech—labels for objects, and phrases like “Wanna go back.” By the end, he knew about fifty words for objects. Pepperberg was never particularly interested in teaching Alex language for its own sake; rather, she was interested in what language could reveal about the workings of his mind. In learning to speak, Alex showed Pepperberg that he understood categories like same and different, bigger and smaller. He could count and recognize Arabic numerals up to six. He could identify objects by their color, shape (“three-corner,” “four-corner,” and so on, up to “six-corner”), and material: when Pepperberg held up, say, a pompom or a wooden block, he could answer “Wool” or “Wood,” correctly, about eighty per cent of the time. Holding up a yellow key and a green key of the same size, Pepperberg might ask Alex to identify a difference between them, and he’d say, “Color.” When she held up two keys and asked, “Which is bigger?,” he could identify the larger one by naming its color. Looking at a collection of objects that he hadn’t seen before, Alex could reliably answer a two-tiered question like “How many blue blocks?”—a tricky task for toddlers. He even seemed to develop an understanding of absence, something akin to the concept of zero. If asked what the difference was between two identical blue keys, Alex learned to reply, “None.” (He pronounced it “nuh.”)

- Birdbrain: The woman behind the world's chattiest parrots.