If you ever used the term “bird brain” to refer to someone with little intelligence, think again. Birds are highly intelligent creatures. Just ask Irene M. Pepperberg, scientist, writer, associate research professor at Massachusetts, and teacher of animal cognition at . Ms. Pepperberg’s memoir, Alex & Me, tells the story of her research and friendship with an African Grey parrot named Alex.
The book opens with Pepperberg learning of Alex’s death. She was surprised at how much she grieved. Being a scientist, she at first didn’t realize how strong a bond she created with Alex. In fact his last words to her were, “You be good. I love you.”
Alex had the brain the size of a shelled walnut. Yet, he could add, sound out words, understand concepts like bigger, smaller, more, fewer, and none. He, with Pepperberg’s coaching, proved that birds possess intelligence.
Throughout the book, Pepperberg tells of the resistance she met within the scientific community. She best puts it, “Scientifically speaking, the single greatest lesson Alex taught me, taught all of us, is that animal minds are a great deal more like human minds than the vast majority of behavioral scientists believed–or, more importantly, were even prepared to concede might be remotely possible. Now, I am not saying that animals are miniature humans with somewhat lower-octane mental powers, although Alex when strutted around the lab and gave orders to all and sundry, he gave the appearance of being a feathery Napoleon. Yet animals are far more than the mindless automatons that mainstream science held them to be for so long. Alex taught us how little we know about animal minds and how much more there is to discover. This insight has profound implications, philosophically, sociologically, and practically. It affects our view of the species Homo sapiens and its place in nature.”
The stories she tells of Alex, who died prematurely at age 31, are endearing, fascinating, and humorous. I laughed when Alex would order the poor interns around the lab.
Pepperberg is continuing her research on African Grey parrots. She is head of the Alex Foundation. Her book, Alex & Me, by Harper Collins retails for $13.99. It’s a beautiful book that will remain with me for a long time.