Irene Maxine Pepperberg, currently a research associate professor at Brandeis University, studies the cognitive and communicative abilities of grey parrots. Over more than twenty-five years, she has shown that these birds have capacities comparable to nonhuman primates and young children. Her oldest subject can use English labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than fifty objects, seven colors, five shapes, and quantities to six; he has functional use of phrases such as “I want X,” “Wanna go Y?” “What color?” and “What shape?” and understands concepts such as bigger/smaller, same/different, and absence.
At Radcliffe, Pepperberg plans to collaborate with Elizabeth S. Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, to compare the numerical competencies of parrots to those of small children. They will design experiments to discover similarities and differences in how humans and nonhumans learn number labels and counting behavior and possibly addition. Results will have evolutionary implications and may also assist children who have problems learning numerical concepts.
Pepperberg holds an SB from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an MA and PhD from Harvard University. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the Animal Behavior Society, and the American Ornithologists’ Union. She has won Whitehall Foundation, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and serves on the editorial boards of four journals. She has presented her research data at numerous national and international conferences, and her work has been highlighted in the media. Her book The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots (Harvard University Press, 1999) was reviewed in both the scientific and popular press.