R.I.P. Alex – That Damn Bird

There was a great article published recently about a parrot called Alex.  No ordinary parrot but one that had been trained over many years to perform complex cognitive functions.  No mere bird-brain either but one that has been compared in complexity to young children and higher-order primates.  But parrots are different to primates- they can actually vocalise their sounds and perform similar cognitive tasks to young children. 

I was absolutely fascinated by this article on Alex.  Some quotes:

What the data suggest to me is that if one starts with a brain of a certain complexity and gives it enough social and ecological support, that brain will develop at least the building blocks of a complex communication system.
[With training,] they are going to produce meaningful, complex communicative combinations.

Why is this interesting?  Well it shows that parrots (or at least this one) can label, can categorise, understand the concept of absence, can count up to 6, and learn up to 100 words.  The techniques that have been used to train Alex and other parrots are now being used to great effect with children with autism. 

This shows that knowledge can come from the most unlikely sources and the benefit of detailed and innovative structured training techniques.  There is more here in a New York Times article that announced his death. 

I especially love the last anecdote in the Edge article.  That others can leapfrog over the level of maturity that you think they are at and yield surprises that are humorous, thought-provoking and motivating. 

RIP Alex.


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