November 2008

A beloved bird on the brain

By Irene Pepperberg
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In Dr. Irene Pepperberg's avian memoir, Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, the common – usually derogatory – epithet of "birdbrain" takes on an entirely new meaning. Readers who meet the "one pound ball of feathers" that is Alex, an African Grey parrot, and follow his educational adventures may marvel at the playful intelligence of this celebrated bird with "a brain the size of a shelled walnut."

Pepperberg, an animal cognition specialist, begins with sad recollections of Alex's unexpected death, recounting with proud astonishment how the media and legions of fans mourned his passing and lauded his extraordinary accomplishments: after decades of her persistent coaching, Alex knew more than 100 English words (sounding out words he did not know), identified shapes and colors, and was capable of rudimentary conceptual thought, intention and affection. The night before he died, his last words to the author were "You be good. I love you… . You'll be in tomorrow?"

While Pepperberg's earlier work, The Alex Studies, clinically documents scientific findings of her 30 years of cognitive experiments with Alex, this memoir – which from necessity includes much of the same information – is a straightforward, innocently moving, personal narrative. This book accents their emotional bonding, Pepperberg's struggles to keep her research activities afloat and accepted by the scientific establishment, the poignancy of her failing marriage, and – best of all – chronicles many touching and amusing moments of daily life with Alex. "Sometimes … . Alex chose to show his opinion of the boring task at hand by playing with our heads… . We would ask him, 'What color key?' and he would give every color in his repertoire, skipping only the correct color."

Alex & Me is neither a work of sparkling prose nor an in-depth scientific study, but its ingenuous narrative humanizes the scientific process and reminds us of our interconnection with nature. Pepperberg roundly challenges notions about man's superior intelligence and consciousness and celebrates the cognitive capabilities of the animals that share our hearts, homes and planet.


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Alex & Me

Alex & Me

By Irene Pepperberg
ISBN 9780061672477

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