And Then I Read: ALEX AND ME by Irene M. Pepperberg


© Irene M. Pepperberg.

This is a true story about a parrot with an amazing mind and voice and his owner/friend who partnered in a thirty-year research project on bird intelligence that forever changed what we know on that subject. Alex, an African Gray Parrot, went far beyond simple mimicry, showing through carefully conducted research that he knew the meaning of many words, including such difficult concepts as “none,” and could use them in combinations that he thought up himself. He also was quite good at numbers and counting up to six, and math concepts like addition and difference. The author’s own story is a large part of this book, too, and it’s a compelling one. Growing up in a family that rarely expressed any emotion or feeling for her, the gift of a pet parakeet at an early age set her on a track that would end in the project covered in this book.

I regret that I didn’t have the chance to see Alex on TV in such shows as Nova with Alan Alda, but you can find him easily on YouTube. Video clips of him are entertaining, but to really appreciate his genius, you need to read this book. When the project began, the idea that a bird could exhibit mental skills beyond those of any primate (including a human up to the age of about 5) was a matter of derision and scorn in the scientific community. “Bird brain” came to have a whole new meaning thanks to Alex and Irene (and her many assistants). This is also a story about a friendship, though the author came to acknowledge it fully only after Alex had died suddenly and unexpectedly a few years ago. If you like birds you’ll certainly enjoy this account, and even if you don’t, it’s well worth reading. Recommended.

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