The Frontal Cortex

Parrots and Mirrors

I’ve been really enjoying Alex and Me, the new book by Irene Pepperberg, and not only because I’ve got an African Grey of my own. It’s full of wonderful anecdotes like this:

The students occasionally took Alex to the washroom, where there was a very large mirror above the sinks. Alex used to march up and down the little shelf in front of the mirror, making noise, looking around, demanding things. Then one day in December 1980 when Kathy Davidson took him to the washroom, Alex seemed really to notice the mirror for the first time. He turned to look right into it, cocked his head back and forth a few times to get a fuller look, and said, “What’s that?”

“That’s you,” Kathy answered. “You’re a parrot.”

Alex looked some more and then said, “What color?”

Kathy said, “Gray. You’re a gray parrot, Alex.” The two of them went through that sequence a couple more times. And that’s how Alex learned the color gray.

Obviously, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we know what it’s like to be a parrot, anymore than we know what it’s like to be a bat, but still…There’s something tantalizingly familiar about the way in which Alex thinks, which is almost certainly a by-product of the complex social worlds of African Greys in the wild. As I’ve noted before, we can learn a lot about the evolution of intelligence by studying the avian cortex.


  1. #1 jb
    November 12, 2008

    Irene was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air today. Touching! But her explanation of operant conditioning was very different from the operant conditioning used to train elephants and other animals at the Baltimore Zoo (not to ride tricycles or stand on their heads but to move, exercise, or medicate them and as a means of communication). Contemporary operant conditioning is more along the lines of what she used with Alex but without the scolding. There are behaviors you can’t ignore and need to immediately stop but you can do it humanely and without the guilt trip.

  2. #2 Luci
    November 12, 2008

    No Friday parrot blogging?

    Nice tie with Mo’s post at Neurophilosophy on migratory birds and some amazing sleep capabilities in flight.
    The teaser for the book was an article in the New Yorker months ago, good to see that is has a warm review here.
    I know a turtledove who loves to play with her mirror image, but have no idea what they coo about, in addition to the body language.

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