Sesame Seed Street: Talking With A Parrot Instead of To Him

Every time I take our dog to the vet, I wish I could talk with her. Not to her — I do that all the time — but with her. She would understand me and respond. However, talking with animals doesn’t go the way you’d think. I found this out in college when I worked with Alex the African gray parrot.

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Irene and Alex in 1987 (photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Alex was part of a 30-year scientific study on animal cognition run by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. While she was teaching Alex English words for the things around him, Dr. Pepperberg had nothing to do with language. She left that uphill battle to the people working with gorillas and chimps. Instead, she taught Alex specific words so she could test his perceptions. He may not have used language like a human does, but Alex could tell us what he wanted and combine words to describe new objects.

I first learned about him when Dr. Pepperberg gave a seminar to our department, and I was fascinated. I wanted to talk with animals, and here was someone actually doing it! As soon as the seminar was over, I asked if she needed any help. She did. I got to spend the next year and a half talking with Alex.

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Kit Dunsmore and Alex in 1987

What was it like? Think Sesame Seed Street. We were teaching a parrot colors, numbers, shapes, and the names of things he played with like toy trucks and test tube corks. Since we were also trying to learn from him, we had to follow a schedule, take notes, train him, and run tests. When Alex got bored, he let us know. He would dive for the test item, sidle away from the trainer, and give us every answer but the one we wanted, just like a cranky toddler. On particularly bad days, he would try to bite.

But he had his sweet days, too, when he would answer immediately, saying “key” or “green” or “4-corner,” take the square-ended green key in his beak, then drop it and say, “Wanna nut!” He would ask for tickles, then lean over, his neck feathers spread, so someone could scratch his head.

At the end of the day, he engaged in dueting behavior. As we left the lab, we all said goodbye using the same standard phrases. He would repeat what we said: “You be good. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he would add a “woo!” sound that African grays make to one another.

Talking with Alex was never like talking with a person, because he wasn’t a person. He was a bird. He was interested in toys and food. He didn’t care that I’d gotten engaged or was going to graduate, although I’d like to think that he missed me after I was gone.

So maybe it wouldn’t help any if I could really talk with Dory, since she’s a dog and not a human. I want to believe I could reassure her that what the vet was going to do was necessary, that the brief pain of a shot was better than getting sick. But could I take away her fear? Maybe being as calm as I can when we go to the vet is really the only thing I can do to help her.

To learn more about Alex, watch this great 12-minute video by NOVA. If you are in a hurry to see Alex and hear what he sounded like, jump to 1:17.

Would you like to talk with animals instead of to them? Why?

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