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Alex and Me

A scientist, a bird, and an unexpected 30-year friendship.

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The day that Irene Pepperberg went to buy a bird to use for her experiment in avian language, she was determined to be very objective. So much so, in fact, that she refused to choose the bird herself.

Instead, she asked a pet store employee to pick one of the eight African Grey parrots in his store for her. As Pepperberg recalls in her memoir Alex and Me, the man “picked up a net, opened the cage door, and scooped up the most convenient bird he could reach.”

So began Pepperberg’s life with Alex, the avian genius who would help her to shatter human notions about the limits of animal intelligence.

During his 31 years with Pepperberg, Alex learned the words for more than 50 objects. He could identify seven colors and five shapes. He understood concepts like bigger or smaller, same or different, and he even grasped the more abstract notion of absence or “none.”

He also learned to use words to express his wants and needs, stating clearly, “Wanna go back” when he craved the quiet of his cage, or “Want a banana” when he was hungry. (And if you gave him a grape when he wanted a banana, Pepperberg recalls, he was likely to hurl the grape back at you.)

His feats were featured in magazine articles and on TV and Pepperberg, who is an associate research professor at Brandeis University near Boston and a teacher of animal cognition at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., wrote about Alex in papers presented at academic conferences.

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