Alex & Me’s Irene Pepperberg, Parrot Person (and Dog Person, too)


Irene Pepperberg’s best selling book, Alex & Me, is an interspecies love story and a science textbook in one — an irresistible tragicomedy-slash- romance -memoir-science-y feminist thriller. (Yes, Random House, you may blurb that).

In her decades of work with her African Gray parrot Alex,  her study subject-cum-best friend, Dr. Pepperberg showed birds have an intelligence that few expect from anything other than humans. Alex could do math. He could sort objects based on characteristics like size and texture. He could make portmanteau words to describe  things (“banerry” was his word for an apple, because it had qualities of both a cherry and a banana). He also understood the rather complex system of using language to manipulate situations: In one of the more heartbreaking sections of the book, Alex, sequestered in a cage at the vet’s, pathetically cries out to Dr. Pepperberg: “I’m sorry.”

Dr. Pepperberg, who is a Research Associate at Harvard University and an Adjunct Associate Professor at Brandeis University, has worked to show some of the chinks in the wall we tend to put up between the experiences of human animal life and non-human animal life. I think it’d be fair to say that she has done for bird intelligence awareness what Jane Goodall has done for chimps and Konrad Lorenz did for geese. And Jim Henson for frogs.

Here is Alex demonstrating his smarts to Alan Alda:

When Alex passed unexpectedly in 2007, he got the press coverage of a Kardashian. The New York Times ran the headline: Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?Jay Leno said “This parrot was very intelligent. They say he knew over one hundred words. They say his intelligence was somewhere between a dog and Miss Teen South Carolina.” This was a few years before I got seriously interested in dog training, but I followed the news coverage. As a nascent dog trainer, the science interested me; as a devoted animal lover, I was touched by the loss I imagined Dr. Pepperberg was feeling.  How strange, I thought, to be receiving such public career accolades at a moment that coincides with one of the saddest moments in this woman’s life.

The book came out the next year. I gave it to my dad for Christmas. He read it, raved, and then gave it back to me to read. Then he bought a copy for everyone he knew.

I was anxious about reading a book where I knew the animal died. I can’t deal with dog deaths in movies and my tolerance isn’t much lower when they do it on paper. But I steeled myself. And boy was it worth it.

This book made me laugh, cry, and then google where I could get a masters learning about animals. It watered a germinating seed of an interest. Ultimately, I decided I’d rather blog about the subject than go to school. Neither pays very well; one requires fewer footnotes.

Another nice thing about writing about a subject you love versus studying it is that there is less of a need to specialize.  I find dog intelligence and behavior pretty amazing, but I also am fascinated by the fact that whales and snails and worms and elephants all learn by pretty much the same methods as do dogs and humans. I’m so grateful that there are people like Dr. Pepperberg who’ve devoted themselves to relatively niche areas of animal study, fleshing out the endless minute details–wondrous idiosyncrasies–of what it means to be whatever kind of species you may be or love.

Last weekend I attended the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants annual conference held in Providence, RI. Truth be told, I got sick shortly after getting there and spent most of my time there partaking in the uniquely human practice of praying to the porcelain god. I missed a lot: The renowned Nicholas Dodman speaking about “Feline Elimination Issues”; a demonstration of teaching pigs to push beach balls and fiddler crabs to ring bells. But I did have a moment to corner Dr. Pepperberg and ask her about dogs.

AJG: You are one of the most famous bird owners of all time. But have you loved other non-human species?

IP: I had a beagle/dachshund-mix named Winston when I lived in Chicago. But my ex-husband kept him when we broke up. I got the bird. I guess you could say that was sort of how my then-husband felt about my research. You get the bird, I get the dog.

Had you had dogs when you were growing up?

I had birds as a child. So I knew early on that they were really really smart. I knew they talked. I was getting my doctorate in theoretical chemistry when I first saw the NOVA programs  on dolphins and birds, and I thought ‘Well no one is doing animal communication work on birds and their talk so why don’t I do that.”

So if you’d had dogs as kid instead of birds, things could’ve gone in a whole different direction!

In some ways I would confuse them — I was so used to dealing with birds, that it was an adjustment communicating with Winston. I remember one time I was cooking dinner and he was whining about something at my feet and without thinking I said, ‘Please just tell me what you want.’ Then, of course, I thought okay, stop, let’s reset. He isn’t going to answer. He isn’t a bird. I was used to Alex, who would just tell me when he wanted something.

Did you train Winston?

I did. I didn’t use clicker training, but I used the same methods, just not with a clicker. We had a set up so he could knock open the door in the dining room and that led to the garage, and then there was a door that led outside. I trained Winston to be able to come back in and close the door on command. He’d turn around,  jump up and close the door, then he’d get a treat. it was great.  I was thrilled with it. But then one time he came into my study and knocked the door open and I said to him, ‘Close the door,’ thinking he could transfer the knowledge. But he looked at me like, ‘Wait, this isnt the right situation.’ I realized it didn’t have to do with his lack of intelligence,  it had to do with the training. He had hadn’t learned to transfer. A parrot would’ve transferred that immediately.

So you’d say parrots are better at generalizing? They’re better at knowing that most doors work in the same way?

Well, we train parrots on concepts. When you have a concept, it’s not an action is responsible for a reward in a very consistent way, but that there is the idea of the object. For Winston, the door he could close was the door down in the dining room. That what is it. I’d never trained him on multiple ideas. There wasn’t a concept of doorness.  So it was a very different type of training. I’m sure if I’d spent time teaching him to use every door in the house, eventually it wouldve been different.

What did Alex think of Winston?

Alex and Winston never met. Alex was always at the lab. He met another dog once. They had a dog in the media lab who would come to visit once in a while. They’d stare each other down.

Is there a difference between your average dog owner and bird owner?

I think there has something to do with the type of behavior people expect from their animals. Parrots can be extremely affectionate, but in a very different way than a dog that’s going to jump on you and lick your face. People want different things from their pets.

What are the main similarities or differences you’ve noticed between the fields of dog training and bird training?

People train dogs and birds in the same way. You can use the same methods to train a dog that you’d use to train a parrot to do some of the things people train birds to do –flap your wings or salute. The work I do is really about getting to an underlying level of intelligence. And I think that people are only just beginning to do that kind of work with dogs. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what dogs are capable of doing.

So canine studies aren’t as advanced yet as avian studies?

Well, if you look at birds, they’re basically one generation from the rainforest. All the native smarts are there. What they’re showing you is the intelligence that the native animals have. But dogs are pretty far removed from the native intelligence of wolves. There is so much we just still don’t know about them.  Take Border Collies, which can learn hundreds of words, people are finding. Well, they’re animals that have largely been bred to do that in a way. They’ve been bred to do a job– interact, listen to human commands, and respond to humans. A lot of what we see with dogs results from the fact that we’ve bred many of them for six thousand years to do specific kinds of tasks. We’ve bred them so specifically, sometimes just breeding them to look cute. And that’s had a negative impact on their brain ability–it’s made them that much more removed from the native intelligence found in a bird or wolf.
There’s starting to be some interesting work, however.  In austria they’re bringing up wolf pups and dog pups in exactly the same ways to try to tease apart what’s what–how much is genetics, how much is interaction with humans, how much is training. We’re really learning a lot.

What is the difference between training animals and studying their intelligence? Are devoted dog trainers really nascent canine intelligence researchers?

When you’re training your dog, you are really socializing it and showing it how to behave to make your life easier. You’re not really trying to figure out how intelligent the animal is. You just want it to do what you need it to. it’s more like management, or problem solving. Theres nothing wrong with that. If you’re going to live with an individual, you need to train it. You do it in a different way, but even if you’re training a child, you’re training an animal to behave in a social way within the constraints of a social system that you live in.

It’s taking it to a different level when you’re saying, okay I know you understand these commands, but can I use these commands to start examining concepts of number? Do you understand concepts of intentionality? Can you learn enough vocal labels to carry out not just a command but a command that lets me know that you know differences in shapes and numbers and concepts? I think most dog owners don’t take dog training to that level. But they could.

So if someone is looking to get a pet, would you advise them to get a parrot, or is a cat or a dog a better starter pet?

Not a bird! People talk to me and they say “I read your book I want a parrot” and I really hope they don’t actually go out and get them. I say “What’s your life like?” and they say, “Oh, I work an eight hour day and I have a two hour commute and on the weekends I take the kids to soccer practice and during the week they have violin after school.’ I’m like, get a goldfish! Birds are flock  animals. They needs a lot of attention, they need to be in a flock. So then someone says, ‘Oh, well I’ll get two! And I say, ‘Well, how often are you in touch with your freshman roommate who someone else picked out for you? You’re going to randomly pick out a friend for life for another individual? It doesn’t work that way. In flocks, birds they choose with whom they want to associate.

Very occasionally I’ll meet someone who says, ‘Well, I’m a writer and I’m home all the time and I have a sibling who could be there to be with the bird when I’m not.” And then I think, well, alright then. Okay. You can have one.

You need a license to bird.

I wish! I’m hoping that there’s the increasing idea that pets aren’t just something that you have to make you happy. They’re beings you share your life with and they take time and effort and energy. I’m hoping that’s changing. But I don’t know. Having a pet, if you do it right, makes you start thinking about caring about another individual. It makes you think about how another individual is going to affect your life. But a lot of people have a very self-centered lives and it’s a sudden shock when they have to care for another thing. I know a lot of colleagues and friends who’d love to have a pet but they’re honest enough to say it’s not right. If you can barely keep a house plant alive, how can you have a pet? That level of realization is important.

But it might be easier to take care of something like a dog because it gives more back to you than a plant does. It’s also better practice at parenting, I’d argue. Do you think that learning how to train an animal could make you a better parent?

Sure. One of my students had a baby and she told me that she felt she’d learned so much about patience and the idea of teaching concepts. When we’re talking about a ball we’re not just talking about one red ball. We’re talking about many kinds of balls. Her animal training had helded her understandhow to teach him the concept of ball.

And a clicker training system is great for teaching kids. Like getting a child to do certain behaviors, like brushing teeth. You want a child to learn that you brush your teeth after eating. You’re not trying to teach concepts of dental hygiene. You just are training a behavior to keep a child healthy. That’s very important. Of course, it’s a different thing than training concepts and  and understanding. But we use different techniques to train different levels of behavior.

So you don’t use clickers with birds?

Not when training concepts. We train by modeling, showing, using examples. It’s a different science. But there are times when it’s useful. You can’t train a parrot to step up using modeling. The step is tiny–I can’t show how to do it! That’s where something like clicker training is perfect. You can shape a behavior. And you can use it to desensitize. You push your hand to a bird’s stomach, you give a click and then a treat and the birds says, ‘Oh, well this is okay–a hand on my stomach is a good thing.”

In the years since you began working with birds, would you say that the veterinary world has become more open to the field of studying animal behavior and intelligence?

A lot of my students go on to become vets and I think they come away from their work with me seeing that animals really are sentient beings. Yes, things have changed a lot. When I first talked to the Association of Avian Veterinarians in the 1980s, I told them that they basically were dealing with pediatric patients. The birds are looking around seeing and understanding nearly everything but they can’t talk, just like a one year old child can’t talk. But they’re sentient beings. They’re sensitive to your tone of voice and actions. You need to talk to them the way you’d talk to a child. They don’t understand the words just like a small child doesn’t, but the tone of voice makes a difference. When I came out and said this, people were looking at me, like…not like I was crazy, but like it was something they’d never thought about. Ten years later I gave the same talk and people were coming up to me and saying, you know, you’re preaching to the choir. We know all this now.

We’ve talked about several species, but I should tell you that this column is called “Dog Person.” I don’t want to be misleading. I know that birds are your most preferred species, but would it be fair to call you a Dog Person, at least opposed to calling you a Cat Person?

Well, I had a dog. I haven’t had cats.  Cats eat birds.


Irene Pepperberg is speaking in Manhattan as part of the Thinking Animals lecture series this Friday May 4th at 7pm. More details at For more on Dr. Pepperberg, visit the website for her organization, The ALEX Foundation.


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