Saturday, July 22, 2006

Parrots 'as intelligent' as young children

An American scientist says the results of a 29-year study suggest parrots could be as intelligent as five-year-old humans.

Brandeis University Professor Irene Pepperberg says her study of Alex, an african grey parrot, shows parrots have an impressive intelligence.

"They're about the same intelligence as a five-year-old child but their communication skills, at least as far as we've looked at in the lab, are only about that of a two-year-old," she said.

"So no long, complicated sentences but the ability to answer the questions that we ask."

Alex can identify 100 objects, most of them food and toys from around his home.

He can add up and identify seven colours.

"If you put language in quotes, yes, they use English speech," Professor Pepperberg said.

"So if I ask Alex … how many keys; he'll tell me 'two'.

"If I ask him what colour, he'll say 'green and if I ask what shape, he'll say 'three-quarter'."
Routine questions

Professor Pepperberg says Alex can use simple phrases to say where he wants to go, and even has a few more complex sentences under his wing.

"There are long phrases that he has that have what we call general reference, but not specific reference," she said.

"We'll have what we call the goodnight routine, so when we leave at night this: 'You be good, I'll see you tomorrow' or 'I'm going to go eat dinner, I'll see you tomorrow' - things like that.

"He has a general sense of the appropriateness of when these are supposed to be said, but probably doesn't understand what all those words mean."

But Alex is no galah - when he does not want to do what is asked, he makes it known.

"He'll generally perform with almost perfect accuracy for about the first maybe 12, 15 trials, and then he just does not want to do it … he'll sit there and he'll preen, or he'll give me all the wrong answers in a row, which takes a lot of intelligence because he's avoiding the one correct answer," the Professor said.

"If he's giving me six wrong answers in a row, you know he's avoiding that seventh answer carefully.

"So you know he knows it, because by chance he couldn't do that."
Autistic children

Professor Pepperberg became interested in parrots after realising there was little study done in the area.

Her research is now being used to help children with learning difficulties.

"I've been working with a colleague, Diane Sherman, who's in Monterey at New-Found Therapies, and she's been adapting our training procedures for work with autistic children, with very good results," Professor Pepperberg said.

"She's helped these children immensely. None of the children have reached completely normal stages, but all of them have progressed significantly."

Professor Pepperberg says she does not know if parrots' consciousness is the same as humans'.

"They certainly have what we call perceptual awareness," she said.

"They're very much aware of their environment, they're aware of everything around them.

"Are they aware of being aware? That is the really critical question."

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