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Photo of Irene Pepperberg Irene Pepperberg as seen on
Animal Einsteins: If Only They Could Talk!

Click on Irene's photo to read a brief bio.

q How do parrots talk? Do parrots have vocal cords like we do? Ben in Mrs. Greene's class

A A very, very complicated question! For example, we have just learned that different parrot species produce speech in different ways. All parrots (and all birds), however, have a syrinx (located at the base of their trachea) that is the sound source, much like our larynx (vocal cords). In the Grey parrot, this basic sound is then modified by different configurations of the trachea, the larynx/glottis, the opening of the beak, the placement of the tongue, and even maybe the esophagus. The process is not all that different from what humans do, although we use our lips and teeth in addition to our tongue, mouth opening, etc. All we know about the budgie is that it produces speech sounds in a different way, somehow producing two sound sources that interact to make what sounds like speech.

q Does Alex ever get an answer wrong? And what has been his hardest test? Chris

A He's right about 80% of the time...sometimes he simply doesn't pay attention, or guesses. I think his hardest test was the comprehension test, when he had to look at the seven objects on the tray and tell us "What object is shape X and color Y?" X and Y changed with every trial, and we could also ask him "What color is matter X and shape Y?" or "What shape is color X and matter Y?"

q On your website it says you've begun work with phonics and there is evidence to suggest that, someday, Alex may be able to read. I'm curious to know what evidence suggests Alex may be able to read, and how he's progressing on this task. Susan

A So far, Alex is able to sound out letters and now some simple combinations of letters...e.g., he knows the difference between S, SH, and CH. That is a long way from being able to read, but we think he will be able to sound out words at some point.

q Does Alex have any bad behaviors like biting, refusing to participate, etc. If so, what do you do when he misbehaves? Mrs. Jordan's Fifth Grade Science Class

A Yes, he does! We give him a "time-out"...we leave him alone until he says "I'm sorry" or answers the question.

q My husband and I have been following you and Alex through the various PBS specials that have featured you. (We enjoy imitating Alex and are extremely fond of him.) The latest one, "Animal Einsteins" had us concerned about Alex's health. His feathers looked like he had been losing a great deal of them. We hope to be reassured by you that Alex is well, and not stressed or ill. Paula

A When the show was filmed some time ago, Alex was recovering from sub- clinical psittacosis, and his feathers were in particularly bad shape. In the best of times, he still plucks a bit (wing and tail feathers), and his plucking is correlated with my travels to present my work at conferences, colloquia, and fund-raising events (so that I can continue the research). You can see how Alex looked after he recovered from sub-clinical psittacosis in photos on my home page.

q Will Alex understand our language if someone else besides yourself talks to him? Or does he just recognize the way your voice sounds? Ryan

A He understands all speakers of standard American English. We've had a bit of trouble with some foreign film crews, because he can't relate to thick accents.

q Does Alex use language to express preferences or make choices? For example, do you ask him what he wants to eat and does he express a preference for one of his foods over another? Does he use language to comment on the world around him, to comment on something in the room, and so on? Ellen

A Yes, he is quite insistent about using his speech to get what he wants. If, for example, he requests a grape and I give him something else, most of the time he says "Nuh (his word for 'no') and requests the grape again. We can't really document if he is commenting on the world around him....if he says "yellow" when a student is wearing a yellow shirt, he might simply be practicing the term.

q I watched "Animal Einsteins" last night and found the program absolutely fascinating. I am very interested in behavioral research of animals. I am currently a junior in high school and hope to pursue a career in this field. I would appreciate it if you could help me by sharing information about the best way I can learn more about this subject and prepare for this career. Thank you. Kym

A You need to take lots of biology courses, including (of course) animal behavior. You should also take at least one course in neurobiology, one in animal learning (generally in psychology departments), one in animal cognition (again, in psychology), and should find a university where you can do independent research in a laboratory that studies an animal in which you are interested. Start now by reading some of the classic books in the area, like Konrad Lorenz' "King Solomon's Ring". Good luck!

q How long have you been teaching Alex the parrot? How old is he? Have you been working with him ever since he was a baby? Kelly

A I've been working with Alex for almost 22 years; he will be 23 in June. I began working with him when he was about a year old, which is very young; Greys can live for 60 years.

q Why do you keep Alex in a room by himself at night? It broke my heart to hear him say "I'm sorry...I love you" when you put him in the cage. Did he feel like he was being punished? Couldn't you let him stay with other birds at night? Julee, Dan and other viewers

A Alex gets put into his cage only to sleep. He is with the other birds for 8-12 hours each day. To accomplish the filming, he was put into his cage several hours earlier than usual (and kept there only temporarily); the change in his normal schedule probably affected his behavior. Normally, he asks to "go back" at about the same time every evening, and is quite insistent; when I put him in he says "You be good" and "I'll see you tomorrow."

q I know African grays are exceptional talkers, but was Alex an unusually interactive parrot? How was he selected for this experiment? I mean, do African grays normally give signals in their own terms that suggest intelligent communication, or did he especially? Where could we read a research report describing his training? Sharon

A Although I encourage people who wish to purchase parrots to obtain them from reputable breeders (to avoid the possibility of smuggled or unhealthy birds), I had to show that I could succeed with ANY parrot. Thus Alex was simply one of eight birds in a cage in a pet store. My other birds are handraised; the youngest, Griffin, actually "chose" me....the breeder sat me on the floor with all the baby Greys she had at the time, and one came running...

I publish in various scientific journals, most often in The Journal of Comparative Psychology, which can be obtained at most university libraries. I believe that copies of some papers can be downloaded from my web site,

q What does Alex eat? Capri

A His basic food is Harrison's Bird Diet, which is specially formulated for parrots. We supplement the pellets with fresh fruits and vegetables, some dried pasta, shredded wheat, puffed corn, a walnut and a few cashews; he also gets a little bit of organic baby food every day so that if we ever have to medicate him, we can 'hide' the medication in a familiar food. He also gets water that is changed several times a day.

q Dear Dr. Pepperberg, I saw you on Mr. Alda's show and I fell in love with your bird. I want to know if you would let me buy Alex and how much you want for him. I have money because I have been saving to buy a horse. P.S. I loved his matter trick.Zoë

A Alex is not for would be like selling part of myself.

However, speaking of parrot sales, we received this joke from Dan...

A man enters a pet shop. "How much is the blue one with the amazing plumage" he asks, pointing to a parrot.

"That's 4000 pounds, Guv, on account of it knowing all three Mozart/da Ponte operas off by heart" replied the salesman.

"Wondrous! How much for the slightly less amazing looking red one?"

"15,000 pounds" comes the salesman's reply "It's got the entire Ring cycle off by heart."

"Hum! Still a bit pricey. What about that moth-eaten looking specimin there?"

"Nah! That one's a million pounds - we don't know what it does but the other ones call it "Maestro."


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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