BOOK: Story of a student and her parrot geared for animal, science loversUnlike many researchers, Irene Pepperberg believed that birds did not merely mimic or “parrot” what they heard. Rather, she believed that birds were highly intelligent. She wanted to prove it.
By: Jean Patrick, Republic Book Columnist
In June 1977, a graduate student named Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store and bought one African grey parrot.
Unlike many researchers, Irene believed that birds did not merely mimic or “parrot” what they heard. Rather, she believed that birds were highly intelligent. She wanted to prove it.
“Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird,” by Stephanie Spinner, is the story of this amazing bird and Irene’s research surrounding his language and intelligence.
Alex (short for Avian Learning Experiment) quickly learned words for objects such as “paper” and “key.”
Then he began to give commands, such as “Want nut!” and “Want banana!” Later, he learned to identify colors, shapes, and matter. He also learned to add, subtract, and understand the concept of zero.
“Alex the Parrot” follows Alex’s life, including his reaction to a new parrot named Griffin in 1995, as well as his untimely death in 2007.
Although the book focuses on Alex, author Stephanie Spinner also provides a wider look at animal communication, including the ruse of Clever Hans (a horse that could do math) and the documented sign language of Koko the Gorilla.
She also points to the future, discussing the significance of Alex’s life to science and to pet owners.
Although the text is longer than in most picture books, the reading never feels heavy, thanks to dialogue and touches of humor. Also, Meilo So’s illustrations bring a colorful vibrancy to the story, even revealing Alex’s bossy personality.
Author Stephanie Spinner also has a special link with animals, having been rescued from the ocean by her dog when she was a toddler. As a child, she often wished she could “bridge the distance” so she could understand what her animals were thinking or saying.
“Alex the Parrot” is perfect for any reader who has an interest in scientific research or who simply craves to know more about what animals have to say.
“Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird.” By Stephanie Spinner. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf, 2012. 48 pp.