The Boston Globe Online Boston.com Boston Globe Online / Health | Science This bird talks, counts, and reads - a little By David L. Chandler, Globe Staff, 05/18/98 [INLINE] UCSON - It's not that he can correctly name objects, colors, and even materials that's most amazing about Alex. It's not even that he can count up to six objects. No, the most impressive accomplishment of this 22-year-old gray parrot is the way he's beginning to master the rudiments of reading. ''Sssssss,'' he sounds when his teacher, biologist Irene Pepperberg, shows him a red plastic S-shaped refrigerator magnet. When she pushes an H next to it, Alex promptly says ''Shhhhh.'' When she shows him the letters OR, Alex clearly enunciates ''or.'' Alex is one smart bird. Not that he can say more words than other parrots. The record for that, according to the Guinness Book of Records, goes to Prudle, a gray parrot in England with a vocabulary of almost 800 words. Alex knows only about 100 words, but has a crucial edge over other parrots: When he says something, he means it. And he knows what he means. People had always assumed that parrots could only ''parrot'' words; they could mimic sounds but had no understanding of their meaning. Pepperberg carefully designed experiments to find out for sure. And after devoting 21 years to teaching Alex (and, more recently, two other gray parrots and one parakeet) and evaluating his language abilities, she has proved that to Alex, at least, the words really do have meaning. Holding a colored cloth ball in front of the bird, Pepperberg asks ''What matter?'' in the kind of laboratory Pidgin she uses to train her subjects. Alex - who can identify wood, plastic, metal and paper, among other ''matter'' - clearly says ''wool.'' Having answered correctly, he's entitled to a reward - but he has to ask for it. Unlike animals in conventional conditioning experiments, he gets nothing unless he asks for it by name, after having given a right answer to a question. ''Want a nut,'' he says, and then happily begins nibbling away at the cashew he is given. Next, Pepperberg presents him a tray that holds a jumbled mix of six green blocks, five green balls, three rose-colored balls, and four rose-colored blocks. She asks, ''How many rose block?'' After studying the tray, Alex will usually answer with the correct number - a task that requires not only counting ability but also an understanding of colors and shapes, and the ability to sort out the categories. (The numbers, types, and colors are changed each time, so he's not just memorizing). In other words, he has to do some serious thinking. Those abilities, comparable to the communicative abilities that other researchers have found in chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins, ''have surprised us,'' said Donald Griffin, a biologist who has taught at Harvard, Cornell and Rockefeller Universities and currently works at Harvard's Concord Field Station, an animal research facility. Such studies provided the initial inspiration for Pepperberg's work when she saw PBS's Nova program about dolphin and ape communication. The research is beginning to provide scientists with new insights about animals' mental capabilities. But this particular complex task that Alex mastered, counting and categorizing a mixture of objects, is one that no other non-human species has yet accomplished. Alex, however, does not always give the right answers; he's right about 80 percent of the time. But depending on his mood, some days he will give an incorrect answer every time - something he couldn't possibly do unless he knew the right answers, and just mischievously refused to give them. ''There's something going on that is not what you expect from animals,'' Pepperberg says. When he's being contrary, she suggests, he may be expressing frustration at ''so many years of tests and sessions'' by engaging in ''a little bit of game playing.'' On a recent Sunday afternoon in Pepperberg's lab, Alex was unwilling to answer any tough questions. He normally gets the weekends off. While he showed great curiosity toward a newcomer in his domain, even climbing onto the visitor's hand and nibbling his thumb gently (''that's courtship behavior,'' Pepperberg pointed out), Alex was not about to give up his time off. According to a variety of standard tests, Alex and his fellow gray parrots, a species native to west-central Africa, have cognitive abilities comparable to a 4- or 5-year-old child, she says. Emotionally, however, they show ''all the negative, self-centered behavior of a 2- or 3-year old,'' she adds. ''That's why you have so many abandoned parrots.'' For example, Griffin, the youngest of her three parrots, now has a bedraggled, moth-eaten look. He got that way while Pepperberg went away for a week and left the parrots in the care of her students. Griffin was so upset at being abandoned that he pulled out his feathers. Pepperberg, whose Harvard doctorate is in theoretical chemistry but whose career has been devoted to studying animal communication, documents all her work meticulously. She has published her results in respected, peer-reviewed scientific journals, something some animal communication researchers fail to do. Pepperberg is also cautious in how she characterizes her research subject's abilities. ''I never claim that he has language,'' she says of her star pupil Alex. ''You could never have the kind of conversation with him that you would have with another person - a two-way conversation. But he can tell us what he wants, and answer questions posed to him.'' Until Pepperberg's ''sound and important work, we did not think that parrots could mean what they say,'' adds biologist Griffin, who has made a career of studying the abilities of animals. Griffin, author of the 1992 book ''Animal Minds,'' believes that such work can be valuable in helping humans understand the thought processes and feelings of non-human species. ''There is a way of getting at what are they thinking and feeling: Letting them tell us,'' he said in an interview. While we know almost nothing about how animals, including parrots, communicate with each other in the wild, and what kinds of information they share, teaching them to speak and understand our language ''might be a very good entry wedge into it.'' What does this research mean about what's going on inside Alex's brain? Pepperberg says that ''working with these birds for 20-some years, there's no question in my mind, on a personal level, that there's consciousness there. But I have not come up with any tests that I believe could show it.'' Griffin agrees with that hunch. Some scientists are ''bashful about inferring conscious thinking, as I am not,'' he said. ''It's been a sort of no-no area to scientists.'' In fact, Griffin has come up with a term for what he calls this ''curious reluctance'' of his colleagues to speak about animal consciousness: ''mentophobia.'' Theodore Barber, a psychologist who heads the Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Science in Ashland, Mass., and wrote the 1993 book ''The Human Nature of Birds,'' is even more emphatic about bird consciousness. ''They're not robots or birdbrains,'' he said in an interview last week. After studying the published scientific research on birds' abilities, he said, ''I came to the conclusion that they're aware, they're intelligent, they know what they're doing.'' In a recent paper in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Pepperberg reported that young parrots develop certain mental abilities much like human children do. She demonstrated that Griffin, her youngest parrot, went through the same six stages that children do (and did so even faster) in developing a sense that objects still exist when they are hidden from view - what psychologist Jean Piaget called ''object permanence'' in his research with human children. Piaget showed that the ability to locate an object that is seen and then hidden is not an innate human ability, but is learned during the first two years of life. In the sixth stage, the experimenter hides an object inside a box (or a hand), hides the box under a cover, and then removes the box and shows it to be empty. The child determines that the object must now be under the cover - and so does the parrot. That's especially interesting because the same test has been tried on a wide variety of animals. Most never made it to stage six: Monkeys, cats, doves, chickens, and hamsters never figured it out. Only great apes, parrots, and possibly dogs passed the test. And the dogs did not get as far as Griffin did. They failed the most sophisticated test, a variant of the old shell game with an object placed under one of three covers that are then moved around. In the shell-game test, Pepperberg wrote in her analysis, Griffin ''never hesitated and seemed to track the experimenter's hand very closely,'' and he almost always knew where the object was. Alex, too, passed the test easily. That suggests, Pepperberg wrote, that ''gray parrots, unlike dogs and cats but like humans and great apes, develop a robust sense of object permanence.'' According to Piaget, such abilities reflect a capacity to form a mental picture of an object, and to understand that its existence continues independent of the observer - fairly sophisticated abstract reasoning. But nobody has yet determined by rigorous scientific tests whether parrots, or any other species, develop more advanced concepts, such as a sense of self, or an ability to remember past events or look ahead to future events beyond the immediate fulfillment of simple requests. ''We have very little firm information'' about such mental abilities, biologist Griffin said. But those questions may eventually be answered: Research by Pepperberg and the handful of experimenters who are studying communication with apes and with dolphins are ''opening up a whole area where we used to think there was just nothing there.'' Alex, however, has simpler things on his mind at the moment. Tiring of his visit with a stranger, he states his desire clearly: ''Want to go back.'' Is he thinking about going back to his cage, back to nature, or back to the African rainforests that were home to his ancestors? Probably not. He settles for going back to the table he left a few minutes ago, and eats another cashew. This story ran on page D01 of the Boston Globe on 05/18/98. © Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.