Illuminating the Amazing Work of Bird Brains
Slice of MIT
When Irene Pepperberg ’69 started her life’s work in the early 1970s, few people believed in the cognitive abilities of birds. But she had a passion for research and the courage to tackle challenges, and over time Pepperberg helped to shape a new field of inquiry.
“We’ve shown that being called a bird brain really should be a compliment, and not a slur,” says Pepperberg, whose research with parrots has shown that they can identify colors and shapes, understand numbers, and distinguish objects by texture.
“Their brain is the size of a shelled walnut,” she says. “And yet they’re doing things at the level of at least 6-year-old children, something along those levels on average. So, that’s saying quite a bit.”
Pepperberg didn’t set out to become an expert in bird cognition. She earned her MIT degree in chemistry and was at Harvard for her doctorate when she became disillusioned with her chosen career path. “[In] talking to the people at Harvard about maybe hiring a woman, it was like, no, there aren’t any women who are capable,” she says. “And we’re going like, wait a minute. You are graduating Harvard PhDs in chemistry, and you’re telling us even then we wouldn’t be able to get jobs at your university?”
In all of science, there is that moment when you have discovered something that nobody else knows. And it’s an amazing epiphany.
Fortunately, at around that time a lightbulb went off for Pepperberg as she was watching a series of television shows on animal-human communication. “There was one on the signing apes; there was one on the dolphin studies; and then there was one on why do birds sing,” she says. “I’m putting this all together, thinking about my little budgie [a type of parrot] when I was a child that used to talk to me. And I’m thinking, wait a minute, why don’t they use parrots? Parrots literally talk.”
Excited by the prospect of combining her childhood love of animals with her passion for scientific research, Pepperberg began studying bird behavior and psychology, eager to explore the emerging field of animal cognition. “It was really something that I felt I could do,” she says, because at that time very little research had been done. “It wasn’t reams, and reams, and libraries’ worth of studies that I had to absorb. It was only about five years of papers and conference proceedings.”
Pepperberg went on to conduct postdoctoral research in animal-human communication at Purdue University. Then, in 1977 she acquired a grey parrot, named him Alex, and began 30 years of experiments to learn more about bird cognition. She has held a variety of academic positions since then—including at Purdue University, Northwestern University, the University of Arizona, MIT, and Harvard University—and is currently an adjunct research professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University.
Pepperberg says that, particularly early on, she ran into a lot of skepticism about her work, but the research results she got with Alex—which indicated that he was thinking, not just mimicking human vocalizations—kept her going. “Just like a toddler, he would say, ‘Want grape.’ And we'd say, ‘What color grape? You want green grape? Purple grape?’” she says. “If he wanted to communicate and he wanted things … he had to talk to us about it.”
Again and again, she says, Alex demonstrated that he understood. “In all of science, there is that moment when you have discovered something that nobody else knows. And it’s an amazing epiphany,” she says. “You can’t rely on the other people and the other people’s acceptance. It’s that internal, ‘Aha, I did it. I showed this. It’s true,’ that keeps you going.”
After Alex’s death in 2007, Pepperberg wrote a New York Times bestseller about their time together: Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. (In the spring, the Central Square Theater in Cambridge is also slated to premiere a play based on her work—Beyond Words—produced by the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT.) Today, she continues her research with parrots Griffin, age 28, and Athena, 10.
Pepperberg’s work eventually won over critics, and the field of animal cognition grew to include labs around the world, conferences, and even a research journal. “I’ve been in this for over 45 years now, and it’s just an amazing change,” she says.
Learn more about Pepperberg's research in this MITAA video.