Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: Alex and Me

TitleAlex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process
AuthorIrene M. Pepperberg
Tagsparrots. language, cognition, animal behavior

In Sept. 2007, Alex, a 31 year- gray African parrot, the most famous parrot in the world, died, emotionally devastating the women who had had him for 30 years and was the cause of his fame. Irene Pepperberg grew up with birds all her life, then got her Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry. Yet the work didn't satisfy her, and she turned to studying cognition and language acquisition in the African gray parrot. African grays were chosen because their pronunciation is better than other birds capable of speech.

Pepperberg began trauning Alex to recognize shapes, colors, and numbers. His capabilities for doing so were astounding. During the 30 years of training, he on his own picked up the abstract concept of none, was able to recognize what was same and what was different, and more. With other scientists studying animal cognition, this has caused a revolution, showing that animals are capable of thought, and that a creature with a brain the size of a shelled walnut was capable of abstract concepts.

Pepperburg summed up her scientific studies in her previous book, The Alex Studies. This book in more personal, about her life and how it led her to this work, about her deep bond with Alex, the depth of which even she was not aware of until his loss, and about the studies she did with Alex. His personality emerges as the alpha bird, bossy, playful, and loving. His last words to her were "You be good. I love you. You'll be in tomorrow"?

There are great moments of humor. In one, Alex was at the vets and near the desk of the accountant. He asked the accountant, "want a nut?" "No". "Want corn" "No, Alex, thank you"... this went on a while. Finally, Alex petulantly asked, "Well, what DO you want?". The accountant laughed and started paying attention to Alex, which is what he wanted.

The book begins with a discussion of what Pepperberg calls her "It's a Wonderful Life" moment. After Alex's death, emails and letters poured in from people who let her know just how much she and Alex had meant in their lives... from scientists, animal lovers, and others.

The book is fairly short, written for a lay person, and written well. Marvelous!
PublicationCollins (2008), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 240 pages
Publication date2008
ISBN0061672475 / 9780061672477

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