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The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

Pepperberg and I walked to the back of the room, where Alex sat on top of his cage, preening his pearl gray feathers. He stopped at her approach and opened his beak.

“Want grape,” Alex said.

“He hasn’t had his breakfast yet,” Pepperberg explained, “so he’s a little put out.”

Alex closed his eyelids halfway, hunched his shoulders, and looked at her. His narrowed eyelids and hunch made him look crabby.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Pepperberg said to him. “See, I can do it, too.” She narrowed her eyes and gave him a stony look, imitating his expression. Alex responded by bending his head and pulling at the feathers on his breast.

To me, she said, “He’s in a bad mood because he’s molting, and sometimes when he’s like that he won’t work.” She spoke to Alex again, “You’ll get your breakfast in a moment.”

“Want wheat,” Alex said.

Arlene Levin-Rowe, the lab manager, handed Pepperberg a bowl of grapes, green beans, apple and banana slices, shredded wheat, and corn on the cob. Pepperberg held up the sliced fruits and vegetables for Alex, who seized them with his beak. Sometimes he held them with a claw and tore them into smaller bits. If he didn’t want something, like the green beans, he said, “Nuh,” meaning “No.” It was an emphatic “Nuh”—short, and decisive. His voice had a slightly nasal and digitized quality, but it was also tinny and sweet, like the voice of a cartoon character. It made you smile.

Under Pepperberg’s patient tutelage, Alex had learned how to use his vocal tract to imitate about 100 English words, including the sounds for all of the foods she offered him, although he called an apple a “ban-erry.”

“Apples may taste a little bit like bananas to him, and they look a little bit like cherries, so Alex made up that word for them,” Pepperberg said.

Alex could also count to six and was learning the sounds for seven and eight.

“I’m sure he already knows both numbers,” Pepperberg said. “He’ll probably be able to count to 10, but he’s still learning to say the words. It takes far more time to teach him certain sounds than I ever imagined.”

Alex was also learning to say “brown.” As a kind of learning aid for “brown,” Pepperberg placed a small wooden block painted chocolate brown next to Alex.

After breakfast, Alex preened again, keeping an eye on the flock. Every so often, he used his claw to pick up the toy block and held it aloft as if showing it to everyone in the room. Then he opened his beak: “Tell me what co-lor?”

“Brown, Alex. The color is brown,” Pepperberg, Levin, and the other assistant replied in a kind of singsong unison. They stretched out brown into almost full two syllables, emphasizing the “br” and “own.”

Alex listened silently. Sometimes he tried part of the word: “rrr ... own.” Other times, he again held up his block and repeated his question: “What co-lor?” And the trio of humans replied together: “Brown, Alex. The color is brown.”

Then Alex switched to the number seven: “Ssse ... none.”

“That’s good, Alex,” Pepperberg said. “Seven. The number is seven.”

“Sse ... none! Se ... none!”

“He’s practicing,” she explained, when I asked what Alex was doing. “That’s how he learns. He’s thinking about how to say that word, how to use his vocal tract to make the correct sound.”

It sounded a bit mad, the idea of a bird willingly engaging in lessons and learning. But after listening to and watching Alex, I found it difficult to argue with Pepperberg’s explanation for his behaviors. She wasn’t handing him treats for the repetitious work or rapping him on the claws to make him say the sounds.

“He has to hear the words over and over before he can correctly imitate them,” Pepperberg said, after she and her assistants had pronounced “seven” for Alex a good dozen times in a row. “I’m not trying to see if Alex can learn a human language,” she added. “That’s not really the point. My plan always was to use his imitative skills to get a better understanding of avian cognition.”

In other words, because Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, because that was beyond his vocabulary, but she could ask him about his understanding of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.

“What’s same?” she asked. She looked at Alex nose-to-beak.

Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”

“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.

“Shape,” Alex said. Since he lacked lips and only slightly opened his beak to reply, the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.

Prior to Pepperberg’s study, scientists believed that birds could not learn to label objects. Assigning labels to items was something that only humans could do, linguists such as Noam Chomsky had argued in the 1960s. Scientists were also certain that birds could not understand concepts such as “same” and “different,” or “bigger” and “smaller.” Yet for the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, uttering the labels for a range of items (key, cup, paper) and distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes, and materials (wool versus wood versus metal) of various objects. The concept of “same/different” is considered cognitively demanding. It required Alex to pay attention to the attributes of the two objects and to understand exactly what Pepperberg was asking him to compare—their color, shape, or material. He had to make a mental judgment and then vocally give her the answer, using the correct label.

Next, she and Alex moved on to some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues. Animals’ ability to count is a much debated subject, but Alex seemed able to do this (and Pepperberg had published several papers attesting to his skill). He even understood the concept of zero, or none, as he called it—again, the only animal, other than two chimpanzees, so far known with this ability.

And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly!” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly!”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hall into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

Reprinted with permission from Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell. Published by The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Weekend Reading: Cave Trolls

Welcome to the 20th edition of the Weekend Reading! Obviously, the column existed before my arrival but 20 editions is a personal milestone for me and you’ll have to excuse me for wanting to acknowledge it in some way. Thinking of all the episodes that brought us closer together, from the Redbull space jump to my long list of dead pets, well, it brings a tear to my eye. It takes a lot of people to keep Weekend Reading up and running, and I’d like to take a brief moment to thank Outside’s legions of cave trolls, cursed to shovel coal into our furnace day and night with their bare hands. Keep up the good work.

We’ve got a great show for you this week. I admit I’m a bit behind the ball on my favorite story from this edition, but Smithsonian’s account of a Russian family that managed to remain isolated for 40 years (missing out on WWII entirely) is too weird to pass up. Reading the story, I almost envied them. Sure, there are bound to be some downsides being that isolated: no heavy metal, no football, no Alien, rotting teeth. On the other hand, they probably never had to fill out a W9 or sit through every technical category of the Oscars with their significant other. Just saying.

Anyway, here’s your 20th edition of Weekend Reading, brought to you by the good people of the troll furnace.

When the body of 51-year-old-census worker William Sparkman Jr. was found hanging from a tree in the Kentucky woods with the word “Fed” scrawled on his chest, all eyes turned to the notoriously isolated, poor, and paranoid county of Clay. Rich Schapiro, The Atlantic.

"When details of Sparkman’s death exploded in the media, Clay County was thrust back into the spotlight; the story led off The Rachel Maddow Show on September 23, received nationwide newspaper coverage, and drew breathless commentary from bloggers and talking heads. Suspicion that Sparkman had been slain because of his affiliation with the government fueled the coverage. Antigovernment sentiment was on the rise, and the Tea Party movement was fast gaining momentum. President Obama had been in office eight months, and Glenn Beck had recently told his followers, 'The time for silent dissent has long passed.' Five months before the hanging, a Department of Homeland Security report titled 'Rightwing Extremism' had warned of the growing potential of violence from domestic fringe groups."

The story of a Russian family, discovered in 1978, cut off from all contact for 40 years and completely unaware of how the world had changed around them. Mike Dash, Smithsonian.

"Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, 'frankly curious.' Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, 'We are not allowed that!' When Pismenskaya asked, 'Have you ever eaten bread?' the old man answered: 'I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.' At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing."

Before his death, cult figurehead Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church had his followers venture into the wilderness to construct an ecologically-friendly utopia. It hasn’t worked out exactly as planned. Monte Reel, Outside.

"In the beginning, the colonists hoped they would be joined by their wives (as well as many, many more followers). Every August, they invite children of Japanese church members to visit for a couple of weeks, but so far none have chosen to stay on. 'My wife thinks that it is not realistic for her to move here yet,' Mister Owada says, 'because we still have to raise the standard of living more.’' When I press him on how tough and lonely this must get, Mister Owada says it doesn't bother him. Moon sanctified his personal sacrifices, promising the men that spiritual rewards would make up for their suffering. 'Even if you die, what regret will you leave behind?' Moon asked the founders in 1999. 'We're risking our lives for this cause,' Mister Owada says, his left eye twitching convulsively. 'I like to risk my life,' he continues. 'That is doing something worthwhile. We have continued to stick with this.'"

North Dakota’s shale gas boom has helped secure American energy and provided unprecedented opportunity for some of the state’s residents. Is it still worth the damage to our world? Edwin Dobb, National Geographic.

"Of everything that’s happening here today—of all the change and growth—what will last? Will the enduring things be the most desirable things? These questions haunt Dan Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Board of Commissioners. 'Oil is a rental business,' he says, meaning that it doesn't stay in one place, doesn't owe any allegiance to the traditional farming and ranching way of life, which Kalil's family has been doing west of Williston, the county seat, for more than a hundred years. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the contrast than the two most iconic structures on this part of the prairie—the itinerant drill rig and the steadfast grain silo. 'When the industry goes south, and it will go south,' Kalil says, 'they just walk away.'"

The story of 832F, the female alpha wolf whose death sparked a controversy unlike any in the history of Yellowstone Park. Jeff Hull, Outside.

"The '06 Female learned to do it by herself—running alongside until she sensed the elk was tiring, then sprinting in front, whirling, and seizing the animal by the throat, an incredibly dangerous undertaking wherein flailing hooves can crack femurs or scapulas and effectively down a wolf. But the '06 Female survived and ran her pack with cool efficiency. She eventually coerced her mates—755M emerged as the alpha male and 754 a very privileged bet—to help out more with the hunting, too. Though she led by example rather than aggression, as the pups grew to adults and a second litter filled in behind them, it was apparent they all did exactly what she wanted them to do. She led with a clear intelligence, successfully defending her territory from other packs in part by knowing when to fight and when to slink away if outnumbered."

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How Military-Style Drones Are Changing Adventure Filmmaking

Last July, expedition photographer Corey Rich was hanging from the side of Pakistan’s 20,508-foot Trango Tower, filming climbers David Lama and Peter Ortner as they negotiated the granite spire’s 3,000-foot face. After a few shots, Rich put his camera away and radioed Remo Masina, a 22-year-old Swiss pilot who was standing in a talus field about a mile away. Masina grabbed a remote control, turned on a Dedicam Quatrocopter—a lawnmower-size drone aircraft that looks like an inverted spider, with spinning blades for feet and a GoPro camera for a head—and sent the thing flying. Masina navigated the drone from the ground, using custom goggles that allowed him to see what the GoPro was filming. The Quatrocopter made three cinematic passes above the climbers, then touched down just before the battery died 10 minutes later. It made four such flights during the team’s 10-hour climb, and the final one caught Rich, Lama, and Ortner as they waved from a snowcapped summit. In September, video of the expedition went viral, with 450,000 views in two months, thanks mostly to the novelty of the footage.

Unmanned drones, once used primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense for wartime operations, are becoming a staple in the adventure world, deployed to do everything from monitor endangered orangutans in Indonesia to aid in search-and-rescue efforts in Colorado. But they’ve become especially popular with filmmakers. This is partly because, even at upwards of $5,000 per day, a drone runs a fraction of the cost of a helicopter rental. It can also get close to athletes without propeller wash kicking up snow or dust. And since drones are unmanned, they allow filmmakers to take greater risks in pursuit of the ultimate shot. In the past few years, unmanned drones have captured innovative footage of surfers in Australia, mountain bikers in England, and skiers in Oregon.

There are currently more than 100 companies in the drone market, with products ranging from a somewhat flimsy $300 model from Paris company Parrot to the million-dollar converted military chopper used by the production house Brain Farm. Most of these, including the $3,000 Dedicam, still require an experienced pilot like Masina, who learned to fly remote copters as a child. That could change, though, thanks to an unlikely source: former Wired editor in chief Chris Anderson, who began tinkering with drones as a hobby back in 2006. In 2009, Anderson founded 3D Robotics, and in December, after receiving $5 million in venture capital, the company unveiled a GPS-enabled craft, called FollowMe, that eliminates the need for a remote pilot. Essentially a personal homing device, the FollowMe includes a small waterproof box that communicates via radio link with the quadcopter-style drone, which is propelled by four rotor blades. A surfer wearing the box could press a button to summon the drone from land, which would then fly over and capture his ride. When the drone senses that its charge is low, it automatically returns to its launch spot. Anderson is the first to sell a ready-to-fly drone-and-box combo to the amateur adventure set, for about $800. “The idea is to make this simple enough that no special skills are required,” he says.

But don’t expect a bunch of flying weed-whackers to be crowding the local surf break just yet. Although Anderson’s drones have a gyro-stabilized camera like the high-end Dedicam model, they have a battery life of only about 15 minutes—approximately a mile’s worth of flying time. And because they lack sense-and-avoid technology—the ability to navigate away from, say, a wall—they work only in wide-open spaces. There’s also the nagging issue of privacy and safety. According to U.S. law, non-commercial filmmakers can use drones to film as long as they stick to unpopulated areas and keep the craft below 400 feet and within sight, but it’s illegal, according to current FAA regulations, for commercial filmmakers to use them at all. A bill passed last year by Congress requires the FAA to update those regulations by 2015, and new laws should pave the way for even more user-friendly drones. “The fantasy I have is that Apple decides to get in the drone business and puts Siri on board one of these things,” says Matthew Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln communications professor studying the use of drones in news reporting. “You just say, ‘Siri, follow me’ and away you go.”

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