Rare birds: Alex the Parrot by Stephanie Spinner

Alex the Parrot cover and link

People have always been fascinated by whether–or what–animals might be thinking. So you have pet psychics, Garfield‘s deadpan snarky thought bubbles, Martha‘s cheerful verbosity, and any number of other talking animal stories. But thanks to some dedicated scientists, we know that clever animals don’t only exist in fiction.

Spinner gives us a bright, informative biography of Alex the Parrot, perhaps the smartest bird in the world. As she introduces Avian Learning EXperiment and his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, she gives a brief background on the attitudes of the time. Most people thought parrots could only imitate speech, not process it. But Pepperberg thought differently, and Alex proved her right.

Through games and testing, Alex showed an understanding of language and a flair for mischief. He even coined his own phrases–an apple, for instance, was a “banerry.” Can you guess what fruit he combined to come up with that? Most interestingly, he knew he was smart. I had to grin at Spinner’s description of what happened when Pepperberg brought another bird into the experiment.

Meilo Sa’s illustrations animate the book into something more than a typical nonfiction book. Even though Alex is gray, the backgrounds–from people’s clothes to the representation of the brain as flowers and the letters in speech bubbles–are streaks and whirls and flags of crazy color, connoting the rainbow patterns we associate with parrots. They could almost make you think like a parrot.

The final chapter gives an overview of how Alex’s fame improved people’s perception of animals, as well as their treatment of captive or pet parrots. An author’s note describes Spinner’s desire to communicate with animals, hinting that we might be closer than we think.

Related reading:

Elephants Can Paint Too

Koko-love: conversations with a signing gorilla

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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