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This parrot changed the world...really!

  • Feb 22, 2010
I figured I would alternately like it and pick apart this book. After all, I’ve been battling the aftermath of Pepperberg’s famous statement, that was something to the effect of African greys have the intelligence of a four year old child and the emotional level of a two year old, for as long as I’ve been helping people with parrot behavior problems. (It’s not that she’s wrong so much as that people seem to interpret it as a license to treat your birds like children.)

What I didn’t expect was how much I would love this book. A young clever girl grows up an only child with meager social skills and budgies as her dearest friends. I know this girl. I am this girl and suddenly I realized there are probably a lot of us girls.

Then as I read, entranced, I also realized a piece of all of Irene’s work that I had been missing. I’m not quite 40 and I was schooled in training animals from a place where everyone believed animals were intelligent, that birds were not by any stretch of the imagination just “stimulus response” machines. I was trained to use operant conditioning and positive reinforcement not because parrots were automatons, but because it was a clear way to communicate. Pepperberg went through hell, even in recent years struggling for funding, so that I could live in a world where it was a given that an African grey parrot understands zero.  I would much rather train people how to manage behaviors because they have forgotten their birds weren’t human, than to have to try to convince blind people to believe that they are exceedingly intelligent and worthy of engaging in a complicated relationship.

And then, despite the fact I knew how the story had to end, I made the foolish decision to finish it in a restaurant in Sonoma. I cried for Irene and for Alex and for myself because my African grey may not be forever either. Then when the waitress approached me with a question in her eyes, I patted the cover of the book.

“Oh! I’ve had an African grey for 8 years. We love him,” she said.  

“Do you know about Alex?” I asked her and when said answered that she didn’t I said, “Then you must read this book,” and handed it to her. I guess I’ll have to buy another copy

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March 03, 2010
It was a little difficult for me to follow. It seems obvious that the bird is intelligent from the video but the statements in the review like, "... so that I could live in a world where it was a given that an African grey parrot understands zero." and then, " I would much rather train people how to manage behaviors because they have forgotten their birds weren't human, than to have to try to convince blind people to believe that they are exceedingly intelligent and worthy of engaging in a complicated relationship." I'm not sure what to conclude.
March 10, 2010
I believe Rebecca means that a bird is capable of understanding the mathematical concept of "zero" i.e., the absence of an object. This was a major breakthrough in Pepperberg's work - Alex spontaneously demonstrated that he could identify of which object there was "zero" quantity. As opposed to "he understood nothing" (e.g., that he didn't understand anything at all).
February 27, 2010
That is an excellent review! I also read this book and found it to be wonderful and so sad. That video was a good tribute to him. I was just like you and Irene growing up, except I had wild birds as my "pets". I had no other friends but these birds outside that I fed growing up. I'm so happy I discovered parrots and was able to be a birdie mommy! (my baby is Annie B., her picture is my profile pic.)
February 27, 2010
You should write a review!
February 24, 2010
The most tragic part of the book for me was that she was forced to keep Alex at arms length for scientific purposes and in the end she realized how much she had lost as a result of this.
February 27, 2010
I agree. I actually had an exchange with Irene about this. I found so much of myself in this book that I just couldn't resist begging her to read my own memoir. She was gracious and complementary when she did read it. So a real feeling woman as much as scientist. Keeping her relationship with Alex in the realm of the scientific method must have been brutal.
March 01, 2010
I think it became even more brutal after the fact.
February 22, 2010
Aw, I love this review!  I was almost one of these girls... except I had a pet chicken, which is different than these other kind of birds :P  This book sounds awesome and it's also awesome how you enlightened your waitress with this book, and Lunch with this review :)  Thanks for sharing, Rebecca!
February 27, 2010
Chicken rule. :)
More Alex & Me: How a Scientist and... reviews
Quick Tip by . March 12, 2010
Alex proved beyond all doubt the intelligence and value of parrots -- we can never pretend ignorance again.
Quick Tip by . March 12, 2010
Awesome story! It was well written and really showed how smart and almost human-like parrots are.
About the reviewer
Rebecca K. O'Connor ()
Ranked #1
Rebecca K. O'Connor isan author, an animal trainer and a champion for wetlands conservation.Perhaps she is best known for her parrot blog, Heckled by Parrots, her parrot guide A Parrot for Life and her … more
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"A fascinating look at animal intelligence, Pepperberg's tale is also a love story between beings who sometimes 'squabble like an old married couple' but whose bond broke only with Alex's death at 31 in '07. Irresistible." (People )

"A moving tribute that beautifully evokes 'the struggles, the initial triumphs, the setbacks, the unexpected and often stunning achievements' during a grounbreaking scientific endeavor..." (Publishers Weekly )

"Highly readable..." (Booklist )

"To anyone who's dreamed of talking with the animals, Dr. Doolittle style, Alex was a revelation.This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex's charms on principle. But his achievements got the better of me.Alex was a celebrity, and this book will surely please his legions of fans." (New York Times Book Review )

"[Pepperberg's] book movingly combines the scientific detail of a researcher...with the affectionate understanding that children instinctively possess...." (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times )
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ISBN-10: 0061673986
ISBN-13: 978-0061673986
Author: Irene Pepperberg
Genre: Professional & Technical, Home & Garden, Science
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
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