Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Alex and Me" by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex and Me; How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process

Irene M. Pepperberg. (2008). HarperCollins Publishers. NY

Did you know Alex? If you saw this intelligent African gray parrot on television or read about Irene Pepperberg’s avian cognition studies with this amazing bird, you may have felt that you did know Alex. I know I did. Apparently thousands of other people did as well because Pepperberg’s book opens with the outpouring of affection and communal loss expressed when Alex died suddenly in 2007.

If you didn’t know Alex, the combined personal emotion plus the attention from international media upon his death creates a basis for you to understand the importance of this bird; not everyone has their obituary published on the front page of the Economist.

When you sit down with Alex & Me, it is as though you are sitting down with a friend telling you about her work with an insightful colleague. Pepperberg takes you through the origin of her interest in avian intelligence and weaves her scientific findings with Alex into the story. While I occasionally wanted more specifics about the science, the story format allows Pepperberg to include examples of Alex’s understanding and intelligence that occurred outside of structured research.

One thing is certain, if you think “bird brain” means dumb or unable to use higher cognitive powers Alex and his avian colleagues will challenge your assumption. Humans frequently hold up the size of our brains as proof of our intelligence, but not all brains function in the same manner and the researchers are always a step behind with structuring studies to delve the capabilities of Alex and his “walnut-sized brain.”

What made Alex so unique was his ability to vocalize his thoughts and understanding in a way that humans could comprehend. When the hermit thrush and the ruby-crowned kinglet reappear each October in my small yard in Woodland Hills, I am always struck by the fact that they have found their way back. Do I know these are the same individual birds? Yes, because both of them announce themselves to me specifically upon their return. This year the kinglet came right up and nearly perched on my hand. Where did they spend the spring and summer? What did they see and experience on the trip? How did they navigate their way back?

Unfortunately these birds can not speak in a language I can understand. But there is intelligence here that goes unexplored. Alex was not bred to be an avian genius, he was just taught to speak clearly so that humans could have insight into his avian intelligence. Alex & Me will make you laugh and cry, it also will challenge you to appreciate the intelligence of non-human animals.

Other Book Reviews:
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Survival of the Sickest

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