Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight": Mathematics, Parrot Fashion

"Who's a clever boy then?" Parrots can do much more than raise a laugh by mimicking their human masters. The results of a massive, 30 year study of African grey parrots revealed that the birds are up there with chimps and dolphins in terms of intelligence, with abilities similar to those of small children. “Their communication skills are similar to those of a two-year-old child, but their adding and ability with colours and shapes are more like a five or six-year-old,” the scientist in charge of the study, Irene Pepperberg, associate professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts told The Sunday Times
Pepperberg's star parrot, called Alex, displayed an astonishing range of mathematical abilities. He was able to name seven colours and five shapes and count or add up to six. He was also able to identify, request and refuse about 100 different objects. In one experiment, he was given collections of four, five and six blocks of three different colours. As individual blocks were pointed out to him, Alex was able to identify them by saying, for instance, "four blue". He performed a similar feat with groups of items, correctly picking out "four corks" for instance. During the course of these lengthy tests, Alex got it right eight times out of ten, Pepperberg concluded.
While other birds, such as crows, have displayed high levels of intelligence in making tools, for instance, Pepperberg believes that for parrots, the sky is the limit, so to speak. The most intriguing result in her tests came when Alex was asked which of two equal objects was the bigger.He confidently replied "none". This suggests birds are capable of much more complex pieces of logal thinking. The phrase "learning parrot fashion" may soon have a completely different meaning. There's much more about Alex at Pepperberg's website, The Alex Foundation. The results of her studies are also soon to be published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Photograph: Irene Pepperberg tests one of her gray parrots
Credit: Rick Friedman/Corbis

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