Talking birds

By Michelle Roberts

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Eighteen-year-old Alex identifies colors, shapes, size and quantities.

This would not be unusual if Alex was a human, but he is not Alex is an African Gray parrot that has been in training since June 1977.

Irene Pepper-berg, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, affectionately calls Alex "sweetie" and "monster" and tries to get him to pay attention to her questions.

The gray bird with his orange-red tail sits on the back of a chair and says, "want nut." But Pepperberg only offers a cashew as a bribe when Alex will not respond to her questions.

"What's different?" asks Pepperberg as she holds up two keys, one that is fluorescent green and another that is metallic blue.

Alex looks around, not paying attention. Pepperberg moves the keys, trying to catch his eye and after a moment Alex answers, "color."

"Which one's bigger?"

"Green."

Then Pepperberg holds up a piece of a small piece of wood and asks, "What matter?"

Alex looks again and then responds, "Wood."

Alex takes a cashew and then drops it on the floor, apparently not interested in the nut anymore.

Alex is capable of identifying seven colors, five shapes, quantities and can also distinguish big from small. Pepperberg is now training the bird to identify certain sounds in connection with letters. She wants to find out whether Alex can put the letter sounds together into words.

Alex is not exceptional, Pepperberg said. She purchased him in a pet store; it is only his training that is exceptional. She began training Alex at Purdue University in 1977, and after a stop at Northwestern University, settled at the University of Arizona in 1991.

Pepperberg said that Alex's abilities and her research are important for three primary reasons. The research has helped

identify how the brain processes information and whether a brain that is wired as differently as a parrot's can process the same kind of information as human brains.

She said conservation has been promoted by her research, because people are more willing to help save the animals when they realize how smart the birds are.

The teaching method used by Pepperberg to teach Alex and two younger birds to answer questions is now being used as a model to teach dysfunctional children.

Pepperberg said that a researcher in Fresno, Calif., has been using the teaching method with autistic children for about a year, with limited success. Autism is a severe emotional disturbance characterized by an inability to interact with people.

Pepperberg and her staff taught Alex to speak by modeling behavior for him. Two people demonstrated questions and answers about objects he had already shown interest in. One person acted as the trainer and the other as the bird, offering responses.

The models either respond correctly and are rewarded or make mistakes and are scolded. Alex goes through four half-hour sessions per day and spends time interacting with lab assistants throughout the day.

Pepperberg said that this teaching method could be important with dysfunctional children because they "can't learn the same way most people can. Learning is not natural to the learning disabled."

Because learning the colors, quantities and size are not learned naturally by the parrots, Pepperberg said the modeling provides hope for teaching dysfunctional children to whom learning does not come naturally either.

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