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Irene Maxine Pepperberg is a research scientist at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pepperberg obtained her undergraduate degree in Chemistry in 1969 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1976, she completed her Ph.D. in Chemical Physics at Harvard University.

In July 1976, Pepperberg began a full-time reading program in the ethology, psychology, and neurobiology, and attended seminars and a course in child language acquisition at Harvard. In January 1977, she continued this work at Purdue University. Later that year, Pepperberg purchased Alex the African Grey parrot and began conducting experiments on interspecies communication and conceptual behavior. A prolific author, Pepperberg has published a large number of articles and a book about her work with Alex. A distinguished member of multiple professional societies, Pepperberg is an active and sought after international speaker.

     

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Pepperberg responds :

10.17.01 Tyler asks:
To what extent do parrots understand what you say? For example, if you said, "You want a cracker?" would a parrot reply, "I want a cracker," or would it simply repeat, "You want a cracker?"
Pepperberg's response:
The bird's reaction depends on how it was trained. My birds see two people interacting during training, where one says "You want a cracker?"; the other responds "I want a cracker", and gets the cracker. Thus the bird sees which phrase is associated with getting the cracker and learns the appropriate phrase. The earlier show, #205 (almost a decade ago), showed a bit of the training procedure. The point is that birds that see how speech is used learn not only to repeat the phrases and words, but to understand what the sounds mean and how to use them.
10.17.01 Sarah Cohn asks:
Do you think African Gray Parrots like Alex are able to communicate independent thoughts to humans?
Pepperberg's response:
To a limited extent, yes. One example: After Alex learned the phrase "I want X", he could put new labels into the X slot without training. Sometimes he does things that communicate to us indirectly. We were having him sound out the plastic letters (T, S, SH, I, K, N, OR, etc.) and he kept asking for nuts after each correct answer and we kept telling him to wait. So he said, very distinctly, "I wanna nut...Nnn...Uuh....Tttt...."
10.17.01 Sandra Harvey asks:
Hello. A month ago, we were given an African Grey parrot who had plucked out all of her feathers below her neck after a frightening episode with a large dog. She's six years old and has taken to me, mostly. I think she is doing well after such a short time. Her feathers are already growing back. Do you have any advice on raising her? The kids have tried to teach her colors, like you taught Alex on the program. She seems to be getting it. Do you have any good books you could recommend? Thanks, we enjoyed the show.
Pepperberg's response:
I don't want to sound self-serving, but there's my own book, The Alex Studies, for training. Then there is a Barron's book, by Maggie Wright, on general Grey behavior, feeding, socializing, etc., and another by Carol D'Arezzo on toys that you can make for your bird. All these can be purchased on the Internet.
10.22.01 Meri Fox-Szauter asks:
I noticed that you bonked Alex on the beak with objects when you asked him questions - was that to keep his attention on the task at hand? We have two lovebirds we're trying to teach/tame and are interested in techniques. It was great to see Alex again! Thank you
Pepperberg's response:
Exactly! He gets distracted sometimes, but even more often when there is a very interesting camera crew nearby. Thank you!
10.22.01 Carol Evans asks:
Are your devices/toys for entertaining parrots for sale? If they are not available now, will they be available? When? There are many bird owners (like me) who struggle to keep their birds entertained. Many, who must worry daily about their pets when away from home. Please tell me your products will soon be for sale.
Pepperberg's response:
We are trying to interest the Media Lab sponsors into developing these devices for sale. The Lab owns the rights to these devices, and thus our sponsors have access. Will let you know what happens!
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