The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots

The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots

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By (author) Irene Maxine Pepperberg

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  • Publisher: HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS
  • Format: Paperback | 448 pages
  • Dimensions: 155mm x 235mm x 27mm | 572g
  • Publication date: 7 May 2002
  • Publication City/Country: Cambridge, Mass
  • ISBN 10: 0674008065
  • ISBN 13: 9780674008069
  • Edition: 1
  • Edition statement: Harvard Univ PR.
  • Illustrations note: 9 halftones, 12 line cuts, 44 tables
  • Sales rank: 218,534

Product description

Can a parrot understand complex concepts and mean what is says? Since the early s, 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 boxes demonstrated capacities inferior to those of mammals; these results were thought to reflect the capacities of all birds, despite evidence suggesting that species such a s jays, crows, and parrots might be capable of more impressive cognitive feats. Twenty years ago Irene Pepperberg set out to discover whether the results of the pigeon studies necessarily meant that other birds -particularly the large-brained, highly social parrots - were incapable of mastering complex cognitive concepts and the rudiments of referential speech. her investigation and the bird at its centre - a male Grey parrot named Alex - have since become almost as well known as their primate equivalents and no less a subject of fierce debate in the field of animal cognition.

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Author information

Irene Maxine Pepperberg is Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Associate Professor of Psychology, and Affiliate in the Program in Neuroscience at the University of Arizona. She is the winner of the 2000 Selby Fellowship from the Australian Academy of Sciences and was made a Fellow of the American Psychological Society.

Review quote

Alex's spectacular abilities were sensationalized in the news media, as though it were a talking parrot act. That obscured the significance of the studies, which is why The Alex Studies is important...[Irene Pepperberg has] done groundbreaking experiments, and bringing them together in a panoramic view is a great service...She describes simply what she did, and why and how her results compare with equivalent language-use and comprehension studies on chimps, marine mammals and children...She proves that animals have abilities greater than we are led to expect, but these can be revealed only by appropriate research tools. She succeeds where many others failed, and she convinces us that the details of investigative methods are what matter. The purpose is not to reveal Alex as a winged Einstein. Instead, she shows that complex mental operations are revealed only be precise methods that match the capabilities investigated. And she demonstrates remarkable parallels between parrots and humans. The core importance of social interaction in both learning and testing is crucial for her results. In that, her studies have relevance far beyond parrots. -- Bernd Heinrich New York Times Book Review Alex's abilities are extraordinary, and Pepperberg's investigation of them makes The Alex Studies essential for anyone interested in the wider issues it raises...As with other pioneering works from Darwin's to E. O. Wilson's, its influence will be felt throughout the field of animal ethology for years to come. -- Caroline Fraser Los Angeles Times Pepperberg's work is admirably rigorous. Earlier work with language-trained animals was notorious for poor design and overly charitable interpretations of data. Pepperberg, by contrast, takes careful precautions against inadvertent cueing. She uses conservative estimates of chance when assessing the statistical reliability of Alex's responses, and she shows restraint when interpreting her results...Pepperberg has organized her book in a quasi-historical fashion, framing each phase of her research in terms of the contemporary work that inspired or informed it. Each chapter is devoted to a particular capacity or competence, such as numerical cognition, categorization, or the comprehension of words...From those who wish to read selectively (or for instructors who wish to assign only one or two chapters) it should be quite welcome because each chapter can stand on its own reasonably well...The book should be accessible to a wide range of audiences, from researchers studying animal behavior to advanced undergraduates in a course that covers relevant material such as animal cognition or the capacities of language-trained animals. -- Edward Kako Science What distinguishes the work of Pepperberg from that of the majority of researchers working with language- trained apes is that she is truly interested in the underlying cognitive processes involved in her subject's behaviour. She thus asks questions...and then designs experiments to test the possibilities...this book represents a scholarly reporting of a scientist's quest to understand the mind of another species in as honest and rigorous a manner as is possible, under the circumstances of being both "parent" and investigator. -- Michael Tomasello and Josep Call Animal Behaviour

Table of contents

Preface 1. Introduction: In Search of King Solomon's Ring 2. Can We Really Communicate with a Bird? 3. Can a Parrot Learn Referential Use of English Speech? 4. Does a Parrot Have Categorical Concepts? 5. Can a Parrot Learn the Concept of Same/Different? 6. Can a Parrot Respond to the Absence of Information? 7. To What Extent Can a Parrot Understand and Use Numerical Concepts? 8. How Can We Be Sure That Alex Understands the Labels in His Repertoire? 9. Can a Parrot Understand Relative Concepts? 10. What Is the Extent of a Parrot's Concept of Object Permanence? 11. Can Any Part of a Parrot's Vocal Behavior Be Classified as "Intentional"? 12. Can a Parrot's Sound Play Assist Its Learning? 13. Can a Parrot's Sound Play Be Transformed into Meaningful Vocalizations? 14. What Input Is Needed to Teach a Parrot a Human-based Communication Code? 15. How Similar to Human Speech Is That Produced by a Parrot? 16. How Does a Grey Parrot Produce Human Speech Sounds? 17. Conclusion: What Are the Implications of Alex's Data? Notes References Glossary Credits Index