!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> The Alex Foundation Newsletter: August 2005

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

What’s Happening in Research

- The Great Manipulators

In everyday conversation, the word “manipulate” often conveys a taste of the conniving, a sense that someone is trying to control the outcome of a situation. Contrary to our contemporary usage, modern dictionaries define the primary meaning of manipulate as “to move, arrange, operate or control…by hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner.” Its secondary definition is more in line with our daily use of the word; the verb is explained as “to influence or manage shrewdly.”

The parrots of The Alex Foundation show behaviors that express both definitions of the word. They can manipulate objects AND people in a very remarkable manner. Dr. Pepperberg’s paper, “‘Insightful’ string-pulling in Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) is affected by vocal competence” (Animal Cognition, Springer-Verlag, 2004), explores the ability of African Greys to obtain objects through the actions of physical manipulation and vocal communication with humans.

In 2003, Dr. Pepperberg began a study of African Grey parrots with a method that had been used to assess “insight” in other avian species, such as ravens. Birds were evaluated on their ability to retrieve food suspended from a string or cord, which was hung below a perch. To obtain this food, the bird, who had no previous training at this task, would stare for a few moments at the apparatus. The bird would then spontaneously reach down, pull up a loop of string onto the perch, secure the string by stepping on it, and then repeat this sequence numerous times. If the bird was successful in the attempt to obtain the food, an “intentional means” was indicated, in that the bird was performing behavior intentionally to accomplish the end behavior of attaining food. This “intentional means-end behavior” suggested a higher-order ability to reason, an ability that is not common among species or even within a given species.

Four parrots participated in Dr. Pepperberg’s work. The birds—Kyaaro, Wart, Alex and Griffin--had varying backgrounds of training, backgrounds that would have telling results on the outcome of the study. The string-pulling abilities of the birds were tested during different time periods with Kyaaro and Alex being tested first in 1995. (Kyaaro, who developed an avian form of Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, has been retired and is now living happily with Maggie Wright of the Grey Play Round Table and her two female Greys.) Alex would be tested again when Griffin and Wart had their first exposure to string-pulling in 2003.

--Kyaaro, almost five years old in 1995, had had four years of training, limited mostly to unsuccessful video and audio input. (Training a parrot through video or audio exposure to words and phrases repeated over and over, does not allow them to learn actual names or labels of objects, as does the model-rival technique). Consequently, Kyaaro’s vocabulary consisted of only a few object and number labels.

--Wart, four and a half years old in 2003, had been trained for three and a half years, mostly in animal-computer interaction. He could use a few labels, such as “want some,” a phase he would utter when a trainer had something he wanted. However, he did not specify the object he wanted the trainer to retrieve.

---Alex, 27 years old in 2003, had received 26 years of human modeling training. At the time of testing, he possessed over 50 object labels, seven colors, five shapes, numbers up to “six,” three categories and many functional phrases. These functional phrases consisted of “I want (object),” “Wanna go (location),” “Come here,” and the command, “Go pick up (whatever!).” Prior to the 2003 study, he had experienced one trial session of string-pulling eight years earlier, in 1995.

--Griffin, eight years old in 2003, had been trained with two methods--the same method used to teach Alex, and also the video training method used with Kyaaro. The training by video experiments caused Griffin the same lack of success as Kyaaro. As a result, Griffin did not have as large of a vocabulary as Alex. But because he also had quite a bit of model-rival training, Griffin did use some of the same labels, commands, and functional phrases as Alex.

Kyaaro, Wart, Alex and Griffin were tested individually to establish their “string-pulling” abilities. Instead of strings, chains of plastic links were used to suspend the target objects. The trials of testing occurred months apart to avoid “massed-trial learning,” in other words, to prevent the birds learning from simply being exposed repeatedly to the same challenge. In Alex’s case, eight years had passed since his initial exposure to string-pulling.

For three of the birds, almonds were offered as the desired object, interchanged occasionally with a piece of chalk. The chalk was used to determine if the type of reward affected the bird’s behavior, because in a bird’s world, chalk is apparently is not as highly coveted as those delicious almonds! Kyaaro’s favorite object was a bell, so for his testing, the bell became the object to obtain. Each bird was placed on a T-stand perch, and after the targeted item had been suspended, the trainers would simply point to the object. If the bird did not seem interested, the trainer would ask “Pick up nut/bell/chalk/treat.”

The results and implications of the study were, to say the least, jaw-dropping. African Grey parrots are astoundingly intelligent, but this study showed just how cleverly they adapted those smarts to the situation at hand.

Both Kyaaro and Wart immediately performed the actions of pulling, stepping and repeating these steps to attain the much-wanted treat. Without hesitation, they executed the actions consistently and with perseverance. After obtaining the almond or bell, the birds enjoyed them as their “treats.” If given a choice between the chalk and the other treat, they always chose the favored treat. During subsequent trials, when chalk was the only object available to obtain, the birds would still retrieve the chalk they saw hanging below them, but would drop it once they had it on their perch. It’s almost as if they enjoyed the challenge of retrieving the chalk as much as they enjoyed the ultimate treat of an almond or bell.

The behavior of Alex and Griffin came from the opposite end of the spectrum—neither of the birds made any attempt to retrieve the nuts. When confronted by the almond hanging below, both Alex (as he had done in 1995) and Griffin looked at the nuts, looked at the trainer, and said, “Want nut.” When the trainer said, “Go pick up nut,” they calmly replied, “Want nut.” This verbal interplay went back and forth during each trial. But Alex took things one step further. During one session, Alex’s demands of “Want nut!” got louder and more intense with the trainer’s failure to comply with his requests.

Dr. Pepperberg states, “The most noteworthy result of the…experiment was that the two parrots with limited vocabularies immediately acted out the correct physical task to obtain their treats, whereas the parrots that had received considerably more effective training in referential English speech attempted instead to manipulate their trainers.”

After their first lack of cooperation in the 2003 string-pulling trials, Griffin and Alex were allowed to observe one of Wart’s successful sessions. But even this did not encourage them to engage in getting those nuts on their own. They ignored the almonds and they ignored the chalk. In fact, in this session, they would not even ask the trainer to get the nut for them. And one has to ask “Why?”

Dr. Pepperberg addresses this, writing, “Determining their actual reasoning is not possible…” But she does offer some potential explanations--one theory is that the birds had learned the trainers would not assist them in this situation, so making a request of the trainers would be useless.

The study does imply an astounding phenomenon which expands the concept of “intentional means-end behavior.” It is this—if a bird’s higher cognitive abilities are established by the ability to manipulate a device to obtain food, what are the implications of a bird’s request to have a human attain it for him, rather than work for it himself?

The behavior of Alex and Griffin, in demanding their trainers fetch their food, could indicate an even higher order of intelligence, in that they know how to manipulate another individual to access their wants. Before Dr. Pepperberg’s 2003 study, there was no prior evidence to suggest that a bird would respond first by the manipulation of others, rather than use a mechanical apparatus.

Dr. Pepperberg explains, “They (Alex and Griffin) were requesting that the trainers do something for them in a very specific and direct manner. They were not treating humans as a physical object to be used (such as a stepping stone to reach something desired) but were engaging in deliberate communication as a problem-solving strategy, a fairly advanced stage of development, even for human infants.”

Those detractors who deny the possibility of inter-species communication will find any reason to reject the validity of the birds’ behavior. But there is one aspect even the disbelievers cannot deny—these birds are great manipulators, whether they are string-pulling to obtain the objects of their desire, or if they are pulling strings to manipulate humans to satisfy their wants.

© 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 the Lab

- Lessons on How to Chastise a Human

It is a given that some humans are more fortunate than others, and most admirers of Dr. Pepperberg’s work harbor a secret envy of those who work with the parrots Alex, Griffin and Wart. Chris, a young student in the lab, is one of those fortunate few. During each workday he gets to experience the wonder and marvels of these incredible creatures.

But those amazing experiences are accompanied by some rather startling lessons that are taught to the lab employees—unexpected lessons which these humans may not realize they need to learn. At times Alex obviously feels the need for some improvement in human behavior, and he pulls no punches in his teaching methods.

“Alex took to me like a parrot to palm fruits,” said Chris. “I felt special, but I soon learned that Alex is a charmer, making almost everyone feel special.” Chris described Alex as “smart, sensitive, macho, articulate, a reveler and trickster.” Little did Chris know that Alex would soon take on the role of lab critic.

“It was a training session for Griffin,” Chris recounts. “Alex was in his cage, seemingly poised and calm. I would soon learn that posture meant trouble. Griffin was being asked to identify a toy truck, but he looked puzzled. Griffin’s facial expression seemed to say, ‘I’ve seen that thing a thousand times and just can’t remember the name of it.’

“Arlene, the lab manager, and I began a ‘human-human’ training session in front of Griffin. Arlene would ask me, ‘What toy?’ I would answer ‘truck’, get the truck, and drop it. I would then request and receive a nut so that Griffin would see that if he labeled the truck correctly, he could get whatever he wanted (which was usually a nut). All this was done in quite an interesting display of emotions. I would be happy and perky, caressing and playing with the toy, making ‘kiddie’ voices of ‘truuuuck, oooooh….I get a nut!’

“The session then switched back to asking Griffin to identify the toy, and Griffin was still not answering. This went on for several minutes, and I got a little frustrated, perhaps raising my voice a little.

“‘Calm down!’ called a voice from the corner, the corner that held Alex’s cage. Arlene replied, ‘He IS calm, Alex.’ In disbelief, I went at it again with Griffin,” says Chris, only to hear the voice from the corner erupt again with a rousing, '"Come on, give it a try!'"

“ Although he doesn’t offer verbal critiques on the behavior of his favorite human, Dr. Pepperberg, Alex has shown her that sometimes she might need concepts presented a little more slowly so she can understand them.

Alex usually receives whatever he requests for every correct answer during his learning sessions, but a limited amount of time on one day caused a slight change. This time he was requesting nuts, and because nut-eating is time consuming, Dr. Pepperberg decided to award the nut after several correct answers. Alex soon made his feelings known. “Want a nut” was heard after each response. “Alex, wait,” Dr. Pepperberg replied. “Want a NUT!” he complained again after the next correct answer. As Dr. Pepperberg tells it, “We’re going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, ‘Want a NUT! Nnn--uh--tuh!’" —sounding out each letter clearly and precisely.

Perhaps he thought “sounding out” a word could help his poor human friend understand just what was expected. And Alex had been getting training on “sounding out” letters, but had never put them together to form a word—so his behavior was special in that way as well. One cannot help but wonder if Alex’s fertile mind reasons that sometimes human beings could improve their behavior in his lab, whether it involves the asking of questions or the giving of nuts.

We will never know the exact thought processes inside that wise grey-feathered head, but his comments do fulfill the sentiments of the old saying, “Those who can, do--those who can’t, become critics.” In Alex’s case, he has demonstrated that he can do both, and do both very well.

© 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

- Be Queen (or King) for a Day!

Would you like to be queen or king of Alex’s lab for one day? Well, becoming honorary royalty is just a donation away if you participate in the newest fundraising campaign of The Alex Foundation.

The need for funds to support Dr. Pepperberg’s research has never been greater. Now that Dr. Pepperberg’s Fellowship at Radcliffe is over and she doesn’t have a regular academic job, the possibility of academic funding no longer exists. The Alex Foundation currently relies solely on private donations.

And what better way to contribute than to support the costs of training and care for one day?

Imagine being able to take Alex out for meal, dropping him by school, and then enjoying his playtime. Regrettably, each King or Queen of the Lab cannot physically experience these activities. The birds’ learning environment limits them to very few visitors, and Alex’s fans might mob him if he ever actually went out to dinner!

But by supporting the lab for one day ($275) or for a half day ($150), you would, in effect, be doing all of those FUN activities! Picture Alex delicately nibbling his broccoli buds, being handfed by one of “his” humans. (He actually demands this type of service!) Visualize Alex and his “professor”--his training sessions are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, and he has recently realized the concept of “zero.” Imagine Alex at the end of his day, indulging in some well-deserved playtime.

And all of this would be due to your generous sponsorship. Aside from the immense gratification of supporting these smart birds, contributors will receive a photo from that day’s training session, along with a certificate of appreciation, signed by Dr. Pepperberg and chomped by the true King of the Lab, Alex himself!

Alex and his cohorts have given the world an entirely new meaning to the phrase, “bird brain.” That phase, which once implied a flighty-type of stupidity, now can be construed as an intelligence capable of reasoning abilities equal to that of a four to six year-old child. Our modern day society becomes outraged when a child is denied education and food. Now that we know these extraordinary parrots have the same capabilities of a human child, surely we can help provide them with the same opportunities.

The continuing education of Alex is in your hands—and a mind like his would be a terrible thing to waste.


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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. Levin
415 South Street
Waltham, 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.


© 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.