Friday, May 12, 2006

Bird Brain's Not Bad

by Brian Lockard
The Ithaca Journal

May 12, 2006

English and math class may be for the birds after all.

Irene M. Pepperberg has spent the last 30 years trying to prove it.

Alex, the Grey Parrot she purchased from a pet store 30 years ago, can identify numbers up to six, colors, various shapes and 50 objects such as keys and nails.

Along with those skills, Alex also learned various phrases to express his needs and emotions.

If he wants a drink, he says “I'm thirsty.” If he is getting tired during a long session with Pepperberg, he simply says, “I want to go back.”

Alex has the intelligence of a six-year-old child, Pepperberg said.

“This is pretty impressive for a creature with a brain the size of a shelled nut,” said Pepperberg, who spoke at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology's Monday Night Seminar series earlier this month.

Obviously, teaching Alex to speak and do math is not an easy process. Learning to enunciate a letter in the alphabet can take Alex up to a year. But overcoming adversity is nothing new for Pepperberg and Alex. When she first decided to study cognitive ability in birds she found little support from her peers.

“The first response I got from a proposal letter came back asking something like: ‘What are you smoking?'” she said.

People who trained chimpanzees to speak actually disliked her at the time because they believed she was trying to mock their work. The fact that women were still not taken very seriously in the world of academia at the time only compounded her problems.

Nevertheless, she persevered and gained confidence as the new teaching methods she used with Alex began to show results, she said.

The idea of doing something she found different and exciting kept her motivated, she said.

“Every time I was ready to quit, Alex would do something new and special,” Pepperberg said.

“A lot of the great discoveries are made by people who are ignored by those who said it couldn't be done and she did that,” said Dr. Jason Mobley, director of Education at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

While her research is very exciting to bird-lovers across the country, others tend to wonder how her research is relevant to them.

Pepperberg collaborated with Dianne Sherman, who works with disabled children at New-Found Therapies in Monterey, Calif., to see how her teaching methods would work with children with autism. The results were outstanding, she said.

Pepperberg recalled one girl who could only mimic some words she heard on television but eventually learned to communicate short phrases with other children on a playground and at church.

Despite the results of her work, she still has trouble funding her work. Her lab only has enough money to operate for the next year, and investors are hard to come by. Admittedly, she constantly worries about where the next check will come from. Still, her resolve remains strong.

“There are nights when I wake up at 3 a.m. with anxiety attacks wondering how will we keep going,” she said. “Then Alex does something exciting and you realize that you did something no one in the world has done.”

The Monday Seminar Series can be viewed at the Lab of Ornithology's web site,

Copyright ©2006 The Ithaca Journal


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