This African Gray Parrot Is the First Animal To Ever Ask an Existential Question

Dr. Irene Pepperberg is known for her groundbreaking research in animal psychology and especially in birds and Alex the African parrot was one of her subjects.
Alex was Pepperberg’s colleague for 30 years until his death in 2007 and helped her achieve a real breakthrough in studying the behavior of birds. Birds were not known for their intelligence until more in-depth studies, but Pepperberg proved that African gray parrots have superior cognition mechanisms.
The name Alex was given as an acronym for „avian learning experiment” and dr. Pepperberg bought him from a pet store in Chicago, US.
Alex was picked out by an employee at the store, so no personal preferences would interfere with the upcoming studies, and his training began soon after. Pepperberg used the model/rival training technique and offered the bird rewards whenever performing outstandingly.
The two trainers Alex got to observe were switching roles constantly, so he can observe a model (desired) behavior and interactivity. As time passed by and Alex’s intelligence grew, he would often correct his trainers in case of mistakes in their way of communicating. Several other pieces of training and exercises followed over the years and in his lifetime, Alex managed to learn to distinguish different colors, objects, materials and identify over 100 words.


One of the most outstanding moments of self-awareness happened when Alex asked his trainer an existential question while observing himself in the mirror. He asked „what color?” about his feathers and soon learned the word „gray”.
This is just one example of how animals and birds are often much smarter than humans think they are, and who knows what other things humans could learn from them if only they knew how to speak.

In 1977, graduate student Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store and bought a year-old African grey parrot. Because she was going to study him, she decided to call him Alex–short for Avian Learning EXperiment. At that time, most scientists thought that the bigger the brain, the smarter the creature; they studied great apes and dolphins. African greys, with their walnut-sized “birdbrains,” were pretty much ignored–until Alex.

Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird: A True Story

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