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COGSCI 111 Pepperberg - Talking With Alex

COGSCI 111 Pepperberg - Talking With Alex - Pepperberg...

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Pepperberg Section: ANIMAL INTELLIGENCE Parrots were once thought to be no more than excellent mimics, but research is showing that they understand what they say. Intellectually, they rival great apes and marine mammals Bye. I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow," I hear Alex say as I leave the laboratory each night. What makes these comments remarkable is that Alex is not a graduate student but a 22-year-old Grey parrot . Parrots are famous for their uncanny ability to mimic human speech . Every schoolchild knows "Polly wanna cracker," but the general belief is that such vocalizations lack meaning. Alex's evening good-byes are probably simple mimicry. Still, I wondered whether parrots were capable of more than mindless repetition. By working with Alex over the past two decades, I have discovered that parrots can be taught to use and understand human speech . And if communication skills provide a glimpse into an animal's intelligence, Alex has proved that parrots are about as smart as apes and dolphins. When I began my research in 1977, the cognitive capacity of these birds was unknown. No parrot had gone beyond the level of simple mimicry in terms of language acquisition. At the time, researchers were training chimps to communicate with humans using sign language, computers and special boards decorated with magnet-backed plastic chips that represent words. I decided to take advantage of parrots' ability to produce human speech to probe avian intelligence. My rationale was based on some similarities between parrots and primates. While he was at the University of Cambridge, Nicholas Humphrey proposed that primates had acquired advanced communication and cognitive skills because they live and interact in complex social groups. I thought the same might be true of Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Greys inhabit dense forests and forest clearings across equatorial Africa, where vocal communication plays an important role. The birds use whistles and calls that they most likely learn by listening to adult members of the flock. Further, in the laboratory parrots demonstrate an ability to learn symbolic and conceptual tasks often associated with complex cognitive and communication skills. During the 1940s and 1950s, European researchers such as Otto D. W. Koehler and Paul Lögler of the Zoological Institute of the University of Freiburg had found that when parrots are exposed to an array of stimuli, such as eight flashes of light, some of them could subsequently select a set containing the same number of a different type of object, such as eight blobs of clay. Because the birds could match light flashes with clay blobs on the basis of number alone means that they understood a representation of quantity — a demonstration of intelligence.
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But other researchers, including Orval H. Mowrer, found that they were unable to teach these birds to engage in referential communication — that is, attaching a word "tag" to a particular object. In Mowrer's studies at the University of Illinois, a
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COGSCI 111 Pepperberg - Talking With Alex - Pepperberg...

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