Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird

Alex the Parrot:  No Ordinary Bird

Book Information

Knopf Books for Young Readers October 2012
Science Curriculum

“A-well-a bird, bird, bird, b-bird's the word A-well-a bird, bird, bird, well the bird is the word A-well-a bird, bird, b-bird's the word A-well-a don't you know about the bird? Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word! A-well-a bird, bird, b-bird's the word” --The Trashmen (1963)

Alex was a bird who knew words. In 1977, grad student Irene Pepperberg purchased him, a year-old African gray parrot, with the intent of studying his capacity to learn and communicate: “Parrots in captivity learned by imitation, too. But exactly what they learned, and how well they understood it, was still a question.

By using a new teaching method with Alex (called the ‘model-rival’ method), Irene hoped to find the answer. “She and a student assistant would sit in front of Alex and pretend to teach each other a word. For example, Irene would show the student a key, saying ‘key.’ The student would repeat the word ‘key’ and Irene would hand the object over. The student would handle the key with great interest, and then show the key to Irene. When Irene responded by again calling it ‘key, ’ she would get to hold it.”

ALEX THE PARROT is an excellent nonfiction picture book ­about a parrot, scientific method, and animal communications. In five chapters, author Stephanie Spinner takes us step by step through Irene’s training of and years with Alex. The training was so successful that eventually Alex could evaluate a group of objects and articulate respective colors, shapes, matter (what an object is made of), numbers of objects, and the difference between objects. He could even understand the complicated concept of zero. “As soon as a new assistant entered the lab, Alex began issuing orders. ‘ Want nut!’ ‘Want grape!’ ‘Go get dinner!’ he would call. ‘Come here!’ ‘Pay attention!’ ‘You tickle!’ “He showed no mercy.”

Beyond all the information about his learning abilities, and related information about other highly intelligent species that have been studied by animal behaviorists, ALEX THE PARROT makes for such a great story because Alex is such a character. He is a total crack-up! What, to me, is so fascinating about this book is that it begins with an explanation of mistaken stereotypes of the past about bird brainy-ness and the now-discredited notions of brain size correlating with intelligence. We are learning new knowledge all the time about such issues, and who knows what we will discover next.

Here, we see the sophisticated cognitive abilities that Alex developed through teaching and practice. We also see the parrot’s social development by reading about how Alex reacted to another (younger) parrot becoming part of his domain. Now, if parrots have such fine working brains, it makes me wonder whether Alex also had the capacity to have feelings and to have memories. Since we are always learning more about the various creatures with whom we share the planet, might it be possible that many animals are far more intelligent than we give them credit for? Might many species of animals and birds and fish actually have feelings? And if we accept the notion that some or all animals might have feelings, how might this knowledge alter the manner in which we own animals and care for animals under our control? Might it also cause some to reconsider their roles in being consumers of flesh that comes from animals who spend their lives in crowded captivity and are then disassembled in meat factories? Or might we simply figure that parrots with their amazing abilities are an exception to it all; that all the creatures people normally eat lack intelligence and don’t have any such cognitive abilities or feelings? Just thinking…

Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA

See more of his recommendations at: Richie's Picks _

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