Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg

I have an African Grey Parrot, so I'm a little biased toward liking Alex & Me. This is my second time reading it, as I chose it a discussion title for the library's book clubs. I have also read and enjoyed Dr. Irene Pepperberg's more scientific book The Alex Studies.

Alex & Me tells the story of Dr. Pepperberg's personal relationship with an African Grey Parrot named Alex (for Avian Language Experiment). She bought him from a pet shop and spent 30 years working with him, disproving assumptions about animal intelligence and behavior.

I am fascinated by Alex and how he changed the way humans view animal intelligence and learning. It's very sad that he died so young (for a parrot), and also that Pepperberg has to constantly scramble for funds to continue her work. This book is filled with sweet, funny, and astounding anecdotes about Alex that don't "prove" anything scientifically but are nonetheless fascinating and thought provoking.

As the owner of an African Grey Parrot, a couple of things she said surprised me. On page 63, she writes “It turned out that beginning training with ‘paper’ was an extremely bad choice, because it is very hard to make a ‘puh’ sound if you don’t have lips.” My parrot Ascar’s favorite word is “popcorn” and he also says “pretty” and parrot”. I don't know how he does it, but evidently the p sound was harder for Alex.

On page 156, she talks about taking Alex home, where he saw an owl and became terrified. My parrot once sat about five feet from a Cooper’s Hawk on a fence in our backyard and he couldn’t have been less interested, although they made eye contact.

In any event, if you are interested in parrots or bird or other animal intelligence, I recommend both Alex & Me and The Alex Studies.

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