Learning Is For The Birds

Gray Parrot Chatter Shows Signs Of Intelligence

For almost 50 years, Flo Sessions has been the "Bird Lady" of West Hollywood, Calif. She's sold thousands of birds at her famous pet shop, earning a reputation as an expert in the discipline of "bird babble."

But just because parrots can talk like humans, does that mean they can think as well? 48 Hours Correspondent Bill Lagattuta explores the possibility that our feathered friends are doing more than imitations.

What if you bought a bird from a pet store and really coached it on a full-time basis? How smart could that bird become? In Flo Sessions' case, the answer is very. Her gray parrot, Vachel, can imitate 12 different voices, including those of his owners, the yard man and even Ruff, the family dog.

But still, the question remains: Is it nature or nurture?

To demonstrate that any gray parrot has intelligence, University of Arizona biologist Irene Pepperberg bought an African gray parrot, Alex, from a regular pet store. He is known worldwide as the "Albert Einstein of birds."

"There were eight birds in the cage, and the fellow who was selling the birds grabbed one with a butterfly net, and that's how we got Alex," says Pepperberg, who’s worked with Alex for close to 20 years.

"Alex can identify about 50 different objects. He knows seven colors; he knows five shapes," she says.

"He has concepts of same and different - concepts of category, concepts of relative size and concepts of absence of information, which is something that nobody ever, ever expected these birds to be able to do," Pepperberg explains. "We say he's processing information."

Although Alex sometimes suffers from performance anxiety, Pepperberg claims that when he's is in top form, he gives the correct answer 80 percent of the time. In fact, she says Alex is capable of the same types of tasks as are young children, chimpanzees and dolphins.

"We don't know if he thinks in the same way we do. We just know that we get the same kinds of answers that, say, a young child would give," says Pepperberg.

There may be some practical applications to this research. Diane Sherman, a bird lover and occupational therapist from Monterey, Calif., says Pepperberg's techniques work with children with learning disabilities.

Sherman once heard the biologist speak. "I thought this is a nice technique," says Sherman. "It's going to work for a variety of kids, for a variety of learning experiences."

48 Hours arranged a therapy session for a 10-year-old child with learning disabilities.

"If we script them, tell them what to say, it doesn't work," says Sherman. "They have to see it and be part of it in order to understand the difference between the two."

Through the same kind of modeling behavior used with the birds, Diane and her assistant Stephanie teach the child to use the appropriate behavior to get a toy car.

says Pepperberg. "I'm not claiming that Alex has language. But clearly the fact that I can train him to use a limited type of communication system suggests that in the wild, his own system must be fairly complex."

And since gray parrots can live to the age of 60, 25-year-old Alex should technically get smarter.

"We're really close colleagues," Pepperberg continues. "I mean when you've worked with an individual for 20 some odd years, you get to know them. You get to know their quirks; you get to know their likes and dislikes."

So if Alex can talk and appears to think, does he feel anything for this woman who's spent more than 20 years of her life nurturing his talents?

"I'll see you tomorrow," says Pepperberg.

"I love you," Alex replies.

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