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Sep 11, 2022

Birds with Words with Dr. Irene Pepperberg (podcast)

With training, African Grey parrots can master hundreds of words. How do they do it — and how does it transform their thinking?

By Templeton Staff

In 1977, Dr. Irene Pepperberg and Alex, her first Grey Parrot research subject, began seminal research into the minds of parrots, providing a new view of nonhuman intelligence. Alex learned to accurately use over one hundred English labels to describe objects, shapes, colors, and materials, did simple math, and understood concepts of “none," "same/different," and "bigger-smaller." The main focus of Dr. Pepperberg's work continues to be to determine the cognitive and communicative abilities of these birds, and compare their abilities with those of great apes, marine mammals, and young children. She studies the mechanisms of their learning as well as the outcomes. Listen in to her conversation with the TWCF-supported Many Minds podcast to hear what she's learned from her decades-long work with Alex and his successors in the lab, parrots Griffin and Athena.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

“My guest today is Dr. Irene Pepperberg. For more than forty years now, Irene has been doing groundbreaking research on parrots, with a focus on how they think and communicate. She is best known for her work with an African Grey parrot named Alex. Alex learned English words for numbers, shapes, colors, and more; he asked questions and talked to himself; he sometimes even invented words of his own. He was, in short, pretty remarkable.

In this conversation, Irene and I talk about Alex, as well as his successors in the lab, Griffin and Athena. We talk about these animals’ histories and personalities and their most impressive feats. We discuss how parrots are like human children in some ways — and unlike them in others. And while we talk a lot about verbal abilities, we also discuss visual working memory, delayed gratification, and optical illusions. Finally, we touch on the power of symbols, parrot communication and cognition in the wild, and the future of animal communication research. 

One quick production note: there are just couple of patches of fuzzy audio here. Please do stick with it though—things get smooth later on and this conversation is just too chock full of cool stuff, really wouldn’t want you to miss it. 

Alright friends, a very warm welcome back, and on to my chat with Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Enjoy!”

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.

Image of Alex, the African Grey parrot (1976-2007), courtesy The Alex Foundation.

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork is by Ben Oldroyd.