Animal behaviour absolutely fascinates me. How a crocodile will sit in the same spot for up to a week to watch its prey’s movements, and learn exactly how to catch it before it strikes to optimise its kill. How African Painted Dogs have learned to hunt in a funnel formation, driving the unsuspecting prey straight into the alpha males waiting teeth before it knows what hit it. How some great apes, just from watching humans at a distance, have learnt how to row a boat, paint, use sign language and to even use objects like hammers and nails. But there is one animal in particular that even I find my mind hard to wrap around, and the sheer comprehension of his achievements is mind blowing.
Get your nerd on guys, it’s about to get geeky in here.
amazingly adorable and fluffy bird right here, in my mind, was a part of one of the most eye-opening and amazing studies of our time. This is Alex. He is an African Grey Parrot, the smartest bird in the world. Now Alex, he wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill bird. What was so special about Alex you ask? Well Alex . . . . . WAIT FOR YOUR MIND TO BE COMPLETELY BLOWN. . . . . . . . he could talk. Now before you shake your head, think ‘Oh Gemma you ninny, loads of birds can talk!’, and conclude that I am in fact deranged, let me explain why this particular case of a bird talking is so special.
When you talk to a bird, does it actually understand what you’re saying? When you hear a bird say ‘Hello’ or ‘Pretty boy want a cracker’, does it understand what IT was saying? If you’re answer was: ‘Of course not!’, you’d be in fact 100% right. The act of listening and repeating what we say is called mimicry. This is simply when the bird has heard a human repeat a word so much that the bird can then replicate it. The bird has no idea what it’s saying of course, this is just a new noise that it has added to its repertoire. The bird only realises that this new interesting noise is worth something when us humans flip out over it and give it food or pats every time it says it. The bird will continue to make this noise until the cows come home, in which it will then learn to moo if it means more love and attention.
This right here is what is special about Alex. He did not just mindlessly listen to human speech and repeat a random assortment of words in the hope of a bit of extra food; he could ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND what you were saying to him and what he was saying back to you. Just actually think about this for a moment. This is a BIRD, a ‘bird-brain’, a being that was believed to have no higher order of thought that is VERBALLY COMMUNICATING with humans and has LEARNT A LANGUAGE! Please watch the following video:
DID YOU SEE WHAT HE DID THERE?!!! IS YOUR MIND NOT BLOWN?!
A 30 year study with Alex saw him learn and understand 150 different words and phrases, and was predicted to have the intelligence of a 5 year old. He could identify 50 different objects like ‘key’ or ‘wool’, he could count up to 6, he could distinguish 7 different colours and 5 shapes, he understood the concepts of bigger, smaller, same, different, over and under! He could answer multiple questions about the same objects. He asked his own questions when he wanted to know something. He could understand the concept of zero or ‘none’. Just imagine how hard that would be for an animal, which base their whole thought process on sight, to understand we are asking him to identify something that isn’t there! He understood how to put language together: for example, he knew what a cherry and a banana was. The first time he was fed apple, which he didn’t know, he said it tasted like banana. When he saw it, he thought it looked like a cherry. He could never properly pronounce the word ‘apple’, so what did he call it? Banerry. He combined two objects that he knew to describe one that he didn’t. If he said he wanted banana and was presented with a nut, he would stare at it, glare at the researcher, and repeat his request. If presented with a nut again, he would throw it at them! Even bird super stars turn into divas! 😛
Every time his owner, Dr Irene Pepperburg, left for the day he would tell her he loved her and told her to behave herself. Once Dr Pepperburg asked him what colour a block was (it was green), and because he was bored and feeling cheeky, he stated every other colour he knew except green. After an hour of this, Dr Pepperburg decided to leave him be, put him back in his cage, and went out of the room. As she was walking down the hallway, Alex started screeching ‘It’s green! It’s green! I’m sorry! Come back! Green green green green!’.
Now if the fact that this bird can understand language and communicate with humans isn’t enough, he taught another African Grey Parrot to talk. And not just mimic, he taught it to understand things like he did. Again, let me reiterate. THIS IS A FREAKING BIRD, WHO UNDERSTANDS ENGLISH, TEACHING ANOTHER FREAKING BIRD TO UNDERSTAND ENGLISH. When the other bird, Griffin, struggled with a word, Alex would correct him and they would talk to each other, IN ENGLISH, until he got it right. This parrot, this so called ‘bird-brain’ Alex, was simply astonishing. When he died, he had not even reached his full potential. He opened the whole world’s eyes to how amazing and smart animals are. He showed us that African Greys have the same intelligence as dolphins and Great Apes, which are one step away from humans on the evolutionary scale. And we humans had the nerve to think birds are stupid?
Not so stupid now are they?