The behavior-change technology called applied behavior analysis (ABA) forms the basis of my work with parrots and children. The first law of ABA, called the law of effect, describes the relation we experience every day between what we do and the environment in which we do it. That is, behavior is a function of its consequences, a purposeful tool. We behave to produce outcomes of value to us. Observing the immediate outcomes produced by our parrots’ behavior provides a lot of information about why an individual behaves as it does.
To investigate animals’ cognitive ability, Irene Pepperberg studied the learning behavior of Alex, an African grey parrot. Of course one of the uniquely intriguing characteristics of parrots for this type of research is that many parrots talk. Over 20 years of intensive training, representing tens of thousands of instructional hours, Alex learned to discrimi
nate 50 object labels; 5 shapes; 7 colors; 4 materials; quantities up to 6, and the concepts same/different and bigger/ smaller. For people who thought these skills could only be mastered by humans, or at best great apes, it is a stunning demonstration of animal
learning. As described by Pepperberg, “It is incredibly fascinating to have creatures so evol
utionarily separate from humans performing simple forms of the same types of comple
x cognitive tasks as do young children.” (seehttp://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge126.html).