What’s Happening in the Lab -
Parrot Personality Profiles
The parrots of The Alex Foundation are just that—parrots. Although they’re famous for triumphs in animal communication, they are parrots at heart. Each bird is in school for a total of 40 minutes a day (two sessions of 20 minutes each)—although sometimes Dr. Pepperberg will squeeze in another training session in the evening, and does all the testing at that time. The rest of the day they are like regular parrots in any home, with one exception—they command of the activities of their world.
Like all animals, they have their own personalities. Griffin, known to his close friends as “Griff,” is ten years old. Sweet and very willing to please, he is shy at first with new people, but very warm to his favorite humans. His eagerness to please makes him especially attentive and cooperative during his training sessions. He obviously wants to give the correct answer to obtain the item in question (and a nut!), but also because it pleases the humans he adores. Arlene, manager of the Pepperberg lab, says he is also a cuddler—at least with her. “He loves to be held close, leaning into me as he rests his head under my chin,” she says. “And of course, he likes his tickles (head scratches) as he snuggles.”
Wart, at seven years old, is the youngest of the birds. His real name is Arthur; his nickname comes from Merlin’s name for the young King Arthur in The Once and Future King. Although he too likes to cuddle with Arlene, he is more of a wild child. Arlene relates, “Wart likes to do gentle swings, and sometimes likes getting his ‘tickles’ when he’s hanging upside down.” Wart’s ability to hang is a special talent, especially in view of a slight disability. No one knows the cause of his problem, but Wart has only three functioning toes. This challenge does not hinder or stop him in anyway. “He loves to hang upside down in his cage,” says Dr. Pepperberg, “just to show us how strong he is!”
When the students are not working on formal tasks with the birds, it’s open season for the birds to work on the lab staff—in short, the birds are in command. For instance, Wart doesn’t articulate where he wants to go, but does show with body language when he wants to go to someone or somewhere. Griff often lifts a foot to be picked up, and demands “wanna go back” to return to his area. Alex gets jealous when one of the other birds is on a T-stand next to Arlene’s chair, and complains, “wanna go chair” in order to displace the offending occupier. But once on the treasured T-stand, he sometimes very quickly decides, “wanna go back.” All these avian imperatives keep the lab staff hopping. After all, the staff IS staff—a human support system for these professional scholars!
“People seem to think that the birds are more like students than parrots,” Arlene says, “but they’re just like other parrots, whistling and making bird chatter.” During the phone interview for this article, the distinct sound of parrot prattle could be heard in the background. At that moment, Alex had climbed inside a cardboard box on top of his cage, and was doing the “Alex Monologue.” Alex loves to go inside his cardboard “house” and run through his litany of phrases and words. One can’t help but smile at the thought of this bright boy telling himself every thing he knows!
Alex, at 29 years old, is the old man of the lab--in more ways than one. He not only is the most educated parrot, he is also the chief trainer…of the humans. Each time a new student comes into the lab, Alex trains them the Alex way. During the first few days of a new person’s presence, Alex starts ordering them around by reeling off food names. Once the food is brought to him, he drops it. Now that the human knows the proper names of his food, the directives begin. “Wanna go chair, want tickles, wanna go back, want showah (shower)”…these requests go on and on until Alex is satisfied the human understands his commands. Alex’s preparation process goes on for about a week, or until he feels he has the new person is properly “trained.”
Like most parrots, each bird shows preference for certain humans and some for certain sexes. Wart doesn’t take to most males, and although Griffin doesn’t have a gender preference, he is choosy about whom he picks as friends. For the most part, Alex prefers guys over gals, but has been known to cuddle up to a few women. And of course, his favorite human is a woman, Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Not only has he known her for 29 years, she has given him something most of us have not given our birds—control.
Think of it. Unlike our parrots, Alex can ask for what he wants, where he wants it and when he wants it. That’s quite an ability to give an animal—the ability to control the world around them. Instead of having to adapt to what a human thinks is best for birds, Alex is allowed to create his own reality—with the help of a few humans, of course. After all, they are just “staff.”
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