Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird: A True Story

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In 1977, graduate student Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store and bought a year-old African grey parrot. Because she was going to study him, she decided to call him Alex--short for Avian Learning EXperiment. At that time, most scientists thought that the bigger the brain, the smarter the creature; they studied great apes and dolphins. African greys, with their walnut-sized "birdbrains," were pretty much ignored--until Alex. 

His intelligence surprised everyone, ...

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In 1977, graduate student Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store and bought a year-old African grey parrot. Because she was going to study him, she decided to call him Alex--short for Avian Learning EXperiment. At that time, most scientists thought that the bigger the brain, the smarter the creature; they studied great apes and dolphins. African greys, with their walnut-sized "birdbrains," were pretty much ignored--until Alex. 

His intelligence surprised everyone, including Irene. He learned to count, add, and subtract; to recognize shapes, sizes, and colors; and to speak, and understand, hundreds of words. These were things no other animal could do. Alex wasn't supposed to have the brainpower to do them, either. But he did them anyway.

Accompanied by Meilo So's stunning illustrations, Alex and Irene's story is one of groundbreaking discoveries about animal intelligence, hard work, and the loving bonds of a unique friendship. 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Alex, as adult readers may recall, was indeed no ordinary bird: for 30 years, this African grey parrot, purchased in a pet shop, was the research subject of animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who taught Alex how to count and do simple arithmetic; recognize shapes, materials, sizes, and colors; and speak and understand hundreds of words—upending the conventional wisdom about animal intelligence and proving that “birdbrain” could actually be a compliment. Alex died suddenly in 2007 and was mourned worldwide, but his life is well-served by Spinner (Aliens for Breakfast) and especially by So, whose fans will no doubt cheer her having found another bird story (after 2008’s Pale Male) that’s a perfect match for her artistry. Together they dive into the details of Alex and Pepperberg’s work, giving Alex’s larger than-life personality its full due (“He let everybody know what he wanted, pretty much all the time”), and showing, with admirable restraint, how an experiment also became an expression of love and deepest respect. It’s a remarkable story with a sad ending—but it’s a good kind of sad. Ages 8–12. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Irene Pepperberg's African gray parrot learned to speak and understand English so well he changed both public and scientific beliefs about animal communication and cognition. Named Alex, for Avian Learning EXperiment, the parrot was randomly acquired from a pet shop for graduate student Pepperberg's research. Spinner deftly summarizes the next 30 years of his training, gradual learning and public attention, ending with his untimely death in 2007. The author weaves in information about other talking animals: Clever Hans, the horse who read his trainer's unconscious cues, and the signing apes Washoe and Koko. She concludes with some outcomes of Pepperberg's studies and her current research. But it is Alex's story, told with admiration and acceptance, that is the essence of this appealing title. Organized topically into short chapters, the chronology of his life remains clear. So's illustrations, done with colored ink and pencils, watercolors and gouache, show parrots in the wild and the pet store and, especially, Alex in action. Sometimes his words appear in colorful speech bubbles. These images, set directly on the white pages, above, below or alongside the text, filling an opposing page or bleeding across the fold, emphasize Alex's personality but also add to readers' understanding of the research work. Bird lovers will be charmed. (author's note) (Informational picture book. 5-10)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, September 24, 2012:
“It’s a remarkable story with a sad ending—but it’s a good kind of sad.”
Children's Literature - Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
In 1977 Irene Pepperberg buys a most unusual African gray parrot named Alex as a pet. Although most people at the time did not think that animals are were intelligent, Irene does not agree. Interested in interspecies communication, she determines to prove how intelligent Alex can be. The lengthy but fascinating text traces Irene's efforts to overcome Alex's fears and teach him words. Not only does he learn them, he becomes very bossy, insisting on his own way. He makes amazing progress in both understanding and speaking. He becomes a celebrity. Irene is shocked and saddened when Alex dies of heart failure in 2007. But he has made a big difference in how people think about and treat birds. Alex is depicted naturalistically using color ink, watercolors, gouache, and colored pencils, an appealing image of a bird we can believe in. Full and half-page scenes demonstrate his abilities to count and handle language. The informative story is light-heartedly presented. An author's note adds relevant personal information. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 1–4—In four generously illustrated picture-book chapters, Spinner tells of Irene Pepperberg's studies in animal communication. As a graduate student, Pepperberg purchased an African grey parrot and named it Alex, short for Avian Learning Experiment. He became the subject of her work at Purdue University. Over time, as Alex became less frightened and learned to verbalize, he changed into a bossy show-off. Pepperberg trained him to identify colors, shapes, materials, and numbers. Once Alex acquired a vocabulary, he put words together and demonstrated an unusually high level of intelligence for a bird. When stories about him appeared in the media, he became a star. Sadly Alex passed away in 2007, but the results of Pepperberg's research changed the way people think about birds and influenced pet owners' care of African grey parrots. Spinner adds a note summarizing her own experiences with pets and tucks in a comment about how understanding animals has progressed. This easy-to-comprehend account is not burdened by technical jargon. So's artwork is done in a combination of colored inks, watercolors, gouache, and colored pencil. A realistic-looking Alex appears on many pages. Lots of white space make the images pop. Solidly colored endpapers give the book a tropical feel and add to the quality packaging. Spinner and So's combined talents recount an interesting slice of animal science.—Lynn Vanca, freelance librarian, Akron, OH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375868467
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 10/9/2012
  • Pages: 48
  • Sales rank: 146,823
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 680L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 8.20 (w) x 10.20 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

STEPHANIE SPINNER is the author of many books for young readers, including Damosel, Aliens for Breakfast, and Paddywack, and Peter and the Wolf. After a distinguished career in children's book publishing, she is now a full-time writer.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 25, 2014

    This is interesting reading for any age with strikingly beautifu

    This is interesting reading for any age with strikingly beautiful illustrations that make the parrot look very appealing. It is such a very pretty book that it would make a nice gift for children who like animals and science  but do not want a thick or complicated book. 

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