!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> The Alex Foundation Newsletter

Volume 1-------- October, 2005-------Issue#3

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.”

© 2005 by The Alex Foundation. All rights reserved. The Alex Foundation Newsletter or parts thereof cannot be reproduced in any manner without permission of The Alex Foundation. The Alex Foundation, a non-profit 501c.(3) organization, is based in Waltham, MA.

What’s Happening with Your Parrot’s Research? -

Your Bird in Alex’s World

The Alex Foundation receives a lot of mail regarding teaching parrots in the home. Almost all owners would like to know how their parrot can learn like Alex. Because we don’t know each individual situation, it’s a tough question to answer. But we’d like to address some of the more general questions to you--the everyday parrot owner--in this month’s newsletter.

The most important factor to consider is why you want your parrot to learn. Many of Alex’s concepts—color, numbers, size, etc.—do not have practical applications in the common parrot’s home. However, if your parrot, like Alex, learns to ask for what he or she wants, both their world and yours becomes a thing of wonder.

The majority of parrots have no control over what happens to them each day. Most people work away from home, leaving parrots in a cage with a few toys, for at least 8 or 9 hours a day. Imagine leaving a four to six year-old child in a playpen for the same amount of time, a child who cannot ask for what they want, and you’ll get some idea of an African Grey’s everyday existence.

Now imagine what a different world your African Grey would live in if he or she could demand, “want pets,” “want out,” and “want play.” Even these few commands could help alleviate a bit of the frustration these wild animals might be feeling in a human environment. As humans, we always feel better when our needs are met. With an animal, being able to ask to have their needs met must seem like an entirely new existence.

Although it isn’t possible within the scope of this article to fully explain how to teach your parrot simple commands, we can give you some basic principles to start you on your way. The first and most important source you should familiarize yourself with is Dr. Pepperberg’s book, The Alex Studies (available at the gift shop of www.alexfoundation.org). The book tells the story of the beginning of Dr. Pepperberg’s research, how she began to realize the learning abilities of African Greys, and how she developed the teaching tools to begin her pioneering work.

This amazing book will help you understand how the parrot mind works, and having this general knowledge can help you develop your own approaches for teaching your own bird. That being said, there are still some fundamental principles and aspects that must be followed in teaching an African Grey to truly communicate.

Dr. Pepperberg based her successful approach to teaching parrots vocal labels by modifying the Model/Rival principles developed by Dr. Dietmar Todt. Dr. Todt’s teaching methods used humans to assume the role of parrot peers in the wild. In Dr. Todt’s work, one human always acted as the trainer, and another human always acted as the model/rival—a model for the parrot’s behavior AND a simultaneous rival for the attention of the trainer. Dr. Todt’s African Greys learned much more quickly by observing the human interaction than they had by other methods. Although Dr. Todt’s intention for training had not been meaningful communication (but optimal learning conditions), it was observed that the birds only interacted with their particular trainer, and learned only the phrase spoken by the model/rival, never that of the trainer.

Dr. Pepperberg modified the Model/Rival technique by alternating the role of trainer with that of the model/rival, so the bird sees that one person is not always the questioner and the other the respondent. Also, she uses several different people to act as both trainer and model/rival. In very simplistic terms, this allows the parrots to perceive the label they are learning as “global” in application, and helps the bird understand that it too can ask questions or make demands. When using Dr. Pepperberg’s methods, the parrot’s mind interprets the vocal utterance of “cork” as “that brown spongy thing”--with not only the two humans currently asking questions, but ALL humans who ask this question.

Dr. Pepperberg’s ability to show parrots that vocal labels were global was a breakthrough in animal-human communication. It calls to mind the scene in The Miracle Worker, in which Helen Keller understands that the finger pattern made by her teacher represents the water flowing over her hand. It was THAT sensational.

For your bird to truly learn the meaning of vocal labels, you must not only use the same methods of Dr. Pepperberg, but also employ them in the same manner. In addition to family members, it’s a good idea to have several friends stop by for a few training sessions. The more people that apply the same vocal label to an object, item or action, the more clearly your parrot will understand the universality of the label to that object, item or action.

When training, the trainer and model/rival must also demonstrate wrong or mispronounced vocal labels, so the bird learns that not any new sound it makes is appropriate. When the wrong answer or mispronunciation is given, the trainer turns away with the object in hand, sometimes saying “no” at the same time. The model/rival then gets a second chance before the humans change roles. When the human model/rival says the correct answer, he or she receives the object from the trainer, and acts very happy in doing so. Here’s a brief example of a training session, from The Alex Studies.

In this exchange, Dr. Pepperberg and Bruce Rosen (secondary trainer) are trying to improve Alex’s pronunciation of the label “five.”

Dr. Pepperberg (acting as trainer): “Bruce, what’s this?”

Bruce (acting as model/rival): “Five wood.”

Dr. Pepperberg: “That’s right, five wood. Here you are…five wood. (She hands over five wooden craft sticks to Bruce. Bruce begins to break one apart, much as Alex would.)

Alex (acting as parrot): “’ii wood.”

Bruce (Now acting as trainer, he quickly replaces the broken stick and presents the five sticks to Alex.)
“Better…” (Bruce briefly turns away then repositions himself in visual contact with Alex) “…how many?”

Alex: “No!”

Bruce: (Bruce turns from Alex to establish visual contact with Dr. Pepperberg) “Irene, what’s this?” (Presents sticks)
Dr. Pepperberg: (now acting as model/rival) “’ii wood.”

Bruce: “Better…” (Bruce turns away from Dr. Pepperberg, then resumes eye contact with her) “…how many?”

Dr. Pepperberg: “FIVE wood” (takes wooden sticks) “…five wood.” (Now Dr. Pepperberg acts as trainer again, directs her gaze to Alex and presents the sticks to him) “…how many wood?”

Alex: “Fife wood.”

Dr. Pepperberg: “OK, Alex, close enough…fivvvvve wood…here’s five wood. (She places one stick in Alex’s beak and the others within close reach)

Again, this is just an example of a training session. Please know that this article’s explanation of the Model/Rival method is very generalized--teaching your parrot with this method can be complex, and not without disappointment. The beginning sessions with your bird probably won’t elicit the same accuracy as the example above, or even an appropriate response. However, one gal in our group did experience the “k” sound from her African Grey the first time she attempted to teach the vocal label of “key!”

Get a copy of The Alex Studies, read it from cover to cover, and you’ll be in a very good place to begin to teach your parrot to communicate with you.

Teaching your parrot with the Model/Rival method is a serious undertaking, requiring a close, impartial observation of your bird’s reaction. Start off with one or two separate short training sessions (five minutes each), and then increase the frequency and length of the sessions once your bird begins to learn. There is no hard and fast rule as to when to increase the time length or the frequency of sessions. Your bird’s response to your teaching, their enthusiasm or lack of it, is the best indicator. Regularity is also another important aspect. Your birds can’t be expected to learn from a hit-or-miss method of training—sessions should take place daily (with perhaps one or two days off each week) to facilitate their learning.

It is also important that the teaching environment be quiet, with no distractions such as TV or interaction between other family members. Alex learned his stuff quickly because he was given five or six sessions per day, with a lot of personal attention directed only toward him. In the past year, because of lack of funding, the learning rate of Wart and Griffin has slowed significantly, mainly because we can only afford two sessions per day by hired help. And because the lab is all in one room, the birds are often distracted by other goings-on in their environment, particularly Alex’s interruptions of Grif’s and Wart’s sessions!

Which brings up our most pressing need…

© 2005 by The Alex Foundation. All rights reserved. The Alex Foundation Newsletter or parts thereof cannot be reproduced in any manner without permission of The Alex Foundation. The Alex Foundation, a non-profit 501c.(3) organization, is based in Waltham, MA.

What’s Happening in Fundraising? -

Wart and Griffin have not been learning as much or as quickly as they have in the past, simply because we don’t have enough space or personnel to teach them in the manner that it best for them. There is always something going on in the lab, whether it’s a student building a new toy or Alex trying to run the other birds’ training sessions—the action is non-stop!

Although this activity gives the birds plenty of action to observe, it’s just not the optimal situation for their learning. And it’s showing.

Our most urgent funding need is money to rent more space for the lab, so the birds can’t observe the activities of others during sessions. We also need to hire some new trainers so the birds can have more one-on-one time with humans. All the birds—Alex, Griffin, and Wart—really enjoy that special attention reserved only for them. And we think they deserve all the attention they can get—they try so hard, and they work so hard— just so they can communicate with humans.

Please do what you can to help them further their education. When you contribute, you become part of Dr. Pepperberg’s remarkable work. When you see Alex on television, you’re part of his accomplishments, because you made them possible. Please help make Wart’s and Griffin’s future just as amazing as Alex’s present day feats. It CAN happen—but only with your help.

Snail Mail address:

Contributions to The Alex Foundation can be made on Alex’s website, http://www.alexfoundation.org/, or by sending a check or money order to the address below:

The Alex Foundation
Brandeis University
Department of Psychology, MS-062
Attn: A. Levin415 South StreetWaltham, MA 02454

Some firms offer a corporate-matching program. If you are employed by a company that matches employee donations, your contribution to The Alex Foundation can do twice as much good. All contributions to The Alex Foundation, a non-profit 501c.(3) organization, are tax deductible.

Fundraising Item of the Month:

The Alex Greeting Cards – get ready for the holidays, birthday, or any day with Alex! There’s a card (and a bird) for all seasons! Click here -- Alex Greeting Cards – to check out these great cards!

Parrot Palooza Gets Ready to Rock!

If you’re within driving distance of Burlington, New Jersey, you’ll definitely want to save the date of Saturday, October 22. It’s the day of the second annual Parrot Palooza, sponsored by Bird Paradise, the largest bird superstore on the east coast!

Dr. Irene Pepperberg will host two FREE seminars, along with a book signing. Alex’s signature line items (cups, mugs, bags, etc) will be sold that day as well. All proceeds from these sales will benefit The Alex Foundation.

Another seminar in toy-making is being sponsored by 8 Beaks Toys (http://www.8beaks.com) If you’ve ever been stumped by how to make toys that your bird will really enjoy, this training seminar will help answer your questions.

Along with door prizes, pumpkin carving contests, raffles and a Chinese auction, the entire store inventory will be on sale for that day only. Visit www.birdparadise.biz for further information or call (609) 747-7777 for more details. Free barbeque and refreshments will be served all day long! This event promises to be too good to miss, so stop by for some fun!

© 2005 by The Alex Foundation. All rights reserved. The Alex Foundation Newsletter or parts thereof cannot be reproduced in any manner without permission of The Alex Foundation. The Alex Foundation, a non-profit 501c.(3) organization, is based in Waltham, MA.