Dr. Irene Pepperberg, an internationally known animal behaviorist who holds faculty positions at Harvard University and Brandeis University, is coming to The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to present “Alex and Me:  Can African Grey Parrots Understand What They Say?” on Thursday, March 29 at 7:30 p.m. in the Raccoon Mountain Room, UTC University Center.  This event is free and open to the public.

Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her parrot, Alex

Pepperberg specializes in the thinking and language ability of birds which have demonstrated they can count, acquire large meaningful vocabularies, and even have conversations!  Her research in raising parrots Alex, Griffin and Wart and studying their cognitive and communicative abilities has been featured on PBS’s NOVA, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the BBC.  She is the 2006 recipient of the Frank A. Beach Comparative Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association.

Dr. David Aborn, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says parrots are among the most intelligent birds, only crows and jays are ahead of them.  He says Pepperberg’s success in unlocking some of the abilities of parrots is helpful in this area of research.

“Parrots can be trained to speak our language.  They can respond in ways we can understand, we don’t have to interpret,” Aborn said.

Dolphins and great apes are also considered to be very intelligent animals.  Extensive research with great ape language and cognition has been conducted by Dr. H. Lyn Miles, primatologist and UC Professor of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  She is Director of Project Chantek, a study of the sign language ability, cognitive, and cultural development of an orangutan, Chantek, who spent his early life on the campus of UTC.

Chantek now resides at Zoo Atlanta.   Miles responded to questions about her work and the work of Pepperberg.

Can you talk about Chantek’s communication skills and how they differ from the language skills from the African Grey Parrots? 

Each of the great apes, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, who have learned human language have slight differences in their reported abilities, and Alex and Dr. Pepperberg’s new parrots Griffin and Wart share many of these skills. The parrots also can name objects, describe the properties of objects such as shape and color and what they are made of. The parrots learn especially well when they have a “rival bird” (actually a student assistant) who gets the right answer, and then they try harder.

Chantek for example, is extremely interested in tools and can even make an early prehistoric stone tool called an “Oldowan chopper,” and very modern and attractive jewelry and found art assemblage. Signing chimpanzees like to dress up in old clothes and interact with each other “in costume.” All the apes have invented words of their own such as Chantek’s “DAVE-MISSING-FINGER” for a campus worker who had an injury, and “RED-PASTE” for ketchup, a combination of “RED TOMATO” and “TOOTHPASTE”.

Alex and Griffin’s very amazing skills include counting. They can also express some requests such as “WANT GO BACK” to return to their cage. They are perhaps less conversational than some of the apes, but the parrots show many similarities with ape language—which is remarkable when you consider that their brain is the size of a walnut.

Why is it important for humans to be able to communicate with great apes and parrots?  What do humans learn in the process?

For centuries humans have depended upon work animals and cared for pets as companions and family members. But, it is interesting that in the same century that we went into space and visited the moon we also reached out to nonhuman species on earth, primarily great apes and dolphins, to try to communicate with them.

But more importantly, our communication studies with nonhumans have made us realize how incredibly intelligent other species are, and that they share with humans the capacity for culture, tool-making, family life, emotions like grief, medicinal plants, language—and even our pattern of social conflict and reconciliation. Humans are a part of nature and the environment, and we have a stewardship or trust to care for the earth and her intelligent beings better in the future.

Of course, there have been practical benefits from animal language studies—some of our techniques and approaches have been tried first with animals and then with human children. But, mostly, I think communication with animals such as Alex or Chantek is an extension of our human nature—we are that species that seeks to understand all creation—and establishing communication and understanding with nonhumans is a part of that quest.

For more information, visit alexfoundation.org or contact: Dr. H. Lyn Miles at lyn-miles@utc.edu.

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