If I had heard of Alex the African gray prior to reading this, I can’t recall. I also don’t know how I ended up with the book on my Kindle, but I’m glad I read it.
Pepperberg spent decades studying cognition in African gray parrots. She developed a love of birds early in her life when she was gifted a parakeet, which helped soothe her lonely childhood. When she decided she wanted to discover whether “bird brain” is as pejorative as it sounds, she purchased an African gray as her first subject. And thus Alex came into her life.
Pepperberg gives a rundown of what her career was like, especially early on. She describes her education, her difficulty finding money to do her research, her move from university to university. Occasionally there’s information about her personal life, like her marriage and divorce. Most of the book is about the research with Alex and eventually with other African grays that she started working with (mainly Griffin and Wart). The focus is primarily on the studies with Alex, and Pepperberg explains how the results upended the view of what nonhuman, non-mammal animals can do. Alex wasn’t only able to label objects, but he could also recognize concepts like bigger and smaller, same and different. There are videos online of this – I took a look at a couple.
This was an interesting read. Pepperberg explains the science and the research without being dry or boring, and I do recommend the book. Ultimately, though, I felt it lacked personality and enough personal descriptions of the relationship between Pepperberg and Alex. They worked together for 30 years, but at times it felt like the writing was a little too clinical. Some of this is intentional. Pepperberg did not want to get too attached to Alex because she didn’t want her relationship with him to skew her research. She did make note of how difficult it was to maintain the distance, and it’s clear that she really cared about him and that he missed her when she wasn’t around. I just wish there had been more showing and less telling and that the book had lived up to it’s subtitle a little more.