Irene Maxine Pepperberg
The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots

Going into The Alex Studies, based on Marc Bekoff's comments on the back cover that it is a "delightful and easy read", I imagined this work to be a bird version of Next of Kin. You will be sorely disappointed if you have such a frame of mind as you begin to read Pepperberg's work. Those looking for evidence, methodology, and extensive referencing will call The Alex Studies a far better book--hands down. Those looking for a "delightful and easy read" book--a work of popular science--will be better off skipping this one and opting for Next of Kin or a review of Pepperberg instead.

Pepperberg's results are incredible. She is a meticulous scientist who sets up careful experiments and allows the results to fall where they may. She is not afraid to raise all possible conclusions, even those that don't fit with what she hopes the results of her studies show.

The book is quite technical and detail oriented, however, so only those very interested in the topic and/or her careful methods will likely be able to wade through the entire contents. Nearly every sentence ends with or includes at multiple places a line or two of references right in the body of the text which makes the book very difficult to smoothly read. She should have used footnotes to the end of the book or bottom of the page instead.

The above criticisms aside, Pepperberg builds a powerful case that species, other than our own, do have cognitive and communicative abilities that they are not often given credit for. Under some definitions of "intelligence" grey parrots can sit right along young humans and ahead of, in some instances, other primates. People should be careful when they claim that only humans are "intelligent" and all other species rely purely on instinct. Humans, too, rely heavily on instinct, but they aren't the only species capable of "understanding".

Of particular interest to me, and possibly to others who are attempting to raise children, is the discussion relating to training techniques. Numerous training methods were tested (on more than one parrot) and only one was found to work. That method includes conversations between two participants who also include the subject being trained. In this case it is a bird, but the same effectiveness may be achieved by including young children in joint conversations. Training/learning by means of propping a bird down to listen to or watch a tape wasn't effective. The same may apply to children--especially young ones who don't have an established framework from which to glean anything useful from the video or audio sessions.

Again, if you want to see how a good scientist works, how to develop meaningful experiments, how to test theories so that skeptics will sign off on your methods, how to explore multiple possible conclusions, and how to think then this book is a gold mine. If you are interested in hearing about some amazing feats accomplished by a grey parrot, too, then reading The Alex Studies will be even more worthwhile for you.

from the publisher:
Can a parrot understand complex concepts and mean what it says? Since the early 1900s, 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 as 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 center--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. This book represents the long-awaited synthesis of the studies constituting one of the landmark experiments in modern comparative psychology.

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.

"Pepperberg has elegantly summarized her 20 years of success showing that an African Grey Parrot can match the cognitive and communicative competence of great apes. Her training paradigm involving reference, functionality and social interaction permits the expression of abilities hitherto unexpected in birds and challenges traditional views of the evolution of intelligence." --Charles T. Snowdon, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"Irene Pepperberg's studies of Alex are some of the most remarkable and significant in the whole field of animal cognition. Her evidence stands up to the closest scrutiny, and Alex the parrot turns out to have cognitive abilities that were not even suspected before Pepperberg began her work." --Marian Dawkins, University of Oxford

"For researchers in the field of animal cognition, Pepperberg brings together in a well organized form 20 years of her work with Grey parrots. In detailing the training and remarkable achievements of Alex and the other birds in Pepperberg's lab, The Alex Studies makes it clear that parrots are capable of much more than 'parroting' or mechanically mimicking what they hear. But this book makes a much greater contribution. It provides a general integrative framework for the larger field of animal cognition, providing much needed links between important natural behavior selected for by evolutionary processes and theories and data from human cognitive development." --Thomas R. Zentall, University of Kentucky