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03/20/2001

Smart Birds, Gorillas and Liftoff

Our sojourn on Marco Island is over and we''re back home in
New Jersey. On our way to Orlando for our flight home, we
stopped in Venice and enjoyed more than our share of hospitality
in the home of our good friends Jean and Allen. In Venice, we
experienced a rare phenomenon in Florida this year, a soaking
rain. On our way from Venice to Orlando, we passed through
the fire-ravaged section of Interstate 4 that had been closed for a
number of days last month. In places, the fires had clearly
spanned both sides and the median of the highway and, even
after the rain the odor of charred vegetation was quite noticeable.

In Venice, my wife and I witnessed another rare phenomenon; at
least I thought so. We were taking our morning walk when two
large birds flew overhead emitting a very loud strange, multilevel
cry. I hadn''t heard this sound before and the birds seemed to me
to resemble the types of birds that my favorite show, "Sunday
Morning", often features in its closing nature segment. I
convinced myself that I had seen, for the first time in my life,
whooping cranes. When I mentioned my conjecture to our hosts,
I was rather disappointed to hear that they were probably wood
storks, which occasionally frequent the region.

But wait! Back in New Jersey, what should I see on the cover of
the February issue of my Smithsonian magazine but a picture of
wood storks. I naturally turned to the article "In Search of
Sanctuary" by Richard and Joyce Wolkomir. The article
described the plight of the wood stork, with the continuing
disappearance of its natural habitat in Florida. The wood stork
actually isn''t a very attractive bird in my opinion and is closely
related to the vulture family. Although I didn''t have my glasses
on when we saw the two birds in question, it seemed to me that
they had more graceful heads than the vulturish heads of the
wood stork. But then I read that the young wood storks have
quite a loud raucous cry when screaming for food. That certainly
fit the cries we heard in Venice. However, later in the article
there was the statement that as the wood stork matures, things
change drastically. The adult wood stork is mute! Our birds
certainly were not mute. So, as far as I''m concerned, I did indeed
see my first whooping cranes.

During my walks on the beach at Marco, I never ceased to be
amazed at how the pelicans could skim over the water and
suddenly dive into it, their head snapping forward at the last
second to snag the poor fish in its bill. The wood stork uses a
more leisurely feeding technique dubbed "tactolocation". It
wades in the water with its open bill submerged under the
surface. The stork doesn''t spot his prey visually but just moves
its bill back and forth until it feels a fish and in a flash (less
than a hundredth of a second) snaps the bill shut, trapping the fish. It
also shuffles its feet in order to flush out fish that are hiding.
All in all, the wood stork is a fascinating creature.

In Orlando, we spent a day at the Disney Animal Kingdom. I
really hadn''t expected too much of interest in this relatively new
Disney attraction but, as usual, I underestimated the Disney
creativity. The 3D bug movie was great; I''m a sucker for these
Disney 3D movies and their fabulous effects. Were my wife and
I really the oldest people in the park? And the Safari ride was
much more realistic than I had expected, with some of the flavor
of a real safari experience. I especially enjoyed the trail after the
safari trip, the prime attraction being a bunch of gorillas which
are also apparently part of a research project. The troop included
a huge silverback male who was beginning to encounter
impertinence from two 9-year old males feeling their oats. The
Young Turks were doing the equivalent of thumbing their noses
at old Silver and he didn''t like it one bit, taking off after them
and swatting them in no uncertain terms. I''ve been to many zoos
but never witnessed gorillas in such a close-to-natural
environment. I can see how Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey could
become so attracted to the study of primates.

But what fascinated me most was, as you might suspect, a
surprisingly simple attraction, a bird show called Flights of
Wonder. I''ve seen bird shows where the birds do tricks and ride
bicycles or such. This show was different in that the emphasis
was on what the birds do naturally. For example, a big owl flew
back and forth about a foot over our heads and its flight really
was virtually silent. Another bird would fly over to a member of
the audience and take a dollar bill from her hand and then return
it. But what impressed me most was a small parrot that looked
more like a pink pigeon. According to the trainer, it is quite
natural for parrots to mimic sounds they hear and she said that
this little guy had a repertoire that included seven songs. Sure
enough, it obligingly sang two of them for us, and not just a
couple measures but the whole darn songs! One was "Yankee
Doodle" and I must admit that parrot did a much better job with
both words and pitch than I would have done.

Watching this clever little bird perform reminded me of an article
I had read about a most unusual parrot and a researcher who had
a most unusual way of working with this bird. I have forgotten
where I saw the article but managed to find the parrot, whose
name is Alex, on the Internet. The researcher is Dr. Irene
Maxine Pepperberg, in the Department of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Dr. Pepperberg, who has a joint appointment in the Department
of Psychology, has a rather unusual background for this kind of
work. She has a Bachelor''s and Masters degrees in chemistry
from MIT and Harvard and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from
Harvard in 1976. In fact, her Ph.D. work dealt with
mathematical modeling of chemical structures and reactions,
hardly what you''d expect for one who has since made seminal
contributions to the field of interspecies communication. Indeed,
it was while she was finishing her Ph.D. work at Harvard that she
realized that she really was more interested in animal behavior
than in chemistry. I was amazed that she managed to finish her
Ph.D. work while educating herself in the fields of animal
behavior, psychology and neurobiology. In 1977, she purchased
an African grey parrot in a Chicago pet store. This parrot, Alex,
proved to be a very wise purchase indeed.

How often have you heard the term "birdbrain" applied in a
derogatory manner? In general, most people have not had a
particularly high opinion of the capabilities of the bird''s brain.
Yet, prior to Pepperberg''s work, various kinds of birds had been
trained to count objects up to eight and to pick out certain objects
from a selection of different ones. But Pepperberg decided to try
to train Alex to respond vocally and she wanted to demonstrate a
capability to reason, not just respond to a stimulus or command.

To train Alex, Pepperberg used a technique developed by a
German biologist to teach phrases to grey parrots. This method
involves not teaching the parrot one-on-one but using two
trainers. One trainer is the parrot''s confidant or "mate" and the
other serves as the model, or perhaps rival. The model mimics
phrases uttered by the mate while the parrot stands by, watching
and listening. Finally, perhaps to gain the attention of its mate,
the parrot repeats the phrases used by the model/rival.
Pepperberg made a point of using various individuals as both
trainers and models so as not to allow Alex to get too attached to
any one person. This approach avoided the tendency of parrots
to become violently jealous when it comes to their "mates".

Pepperberg''s Web site provides interesting papers and
biographical data. One paper by Kenn Kaufman in Audubon
Sept/Oct 1991 describes a typical visit with Alex. Hold up two
different keys and ask Alex, "How many?" The response is not
immediate. Alex ponders his answer carefully before replying,
"Two." If one key is green and the other is a smaller blue key
and you ask "Which is bigger?", Alex again ponders for maybe
15 seconds and answers "Green key." Typically when Alex
answers correctly, he may get as his reward the object itself to
play with. Ask Alex questions about the number, color, size or
shape or even what''s it''s made of (e.g., wood, metal) and, if it''s in
his vocabulary, he''ll come up with the right answer 80 percent of
the time. He can also tell whether objects are the same or
different.

Alex can also be stubborn and it''s likely that a good many of his
"mistakes" are really intentional, designed to indicate his
irritation or to get the goat of his inquisitor. Perhaps he just gets
tired of all this nonsense. In one test there were six items on a
tray and he was asked to identify the green item. He named
every item but the green one and then tipped over the tray!
When left alone with a new student, he will ask for just about
every item in his vocabulary, keeping the student hustling to give
Alex what he wants. It seems that Alex likes to test the
newcomer''s own vocabulary to see if he qualifies as a true
member of the "flock".

The morning we left our hotel in Orlando for the airport, we got
a real bonus in the form of a "bird" of another variety. My wife
met a man who said the shuttle was leaving and he was running
to get his family so as not to miss it. I assumed that it was the
shuttle to the airport but it turned out to be the liftoff of
Discovery on its way to the international space station. Even
from Orlando the sight was pretty awesome and fulfilled my long
held desire to see a launch.

Fittingly, the Continental magazine on the plane had an article
about the work being done in Cleveland at the NASA Glenn
Research Center, where I''ve mentioned I worked for a couple
years. Of special interest to me was the work related to the space
station and I was surprised to find that one of the methods of
storing energy on the space station is the flywheel as an
alternative to storing the energy in batteries. I''ll have to look
into this for a future column.

Meanwhile, back home we''re eagerly awaiting the arrival of
another bird, the first robin of spring.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-03/20/2001-      
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Dr. Bortrum

03/20/2001

Smart Birds, Gorillas and Liftoff

Our sojourn on Marco Island is over and we''re back home in
New Jersey. On our way to Orlando for our flight home, we
stopped in Venice and enjoyed more than our share of hospitality
in the home of our good friends Jean and Allen. In Venice, we
experienced a rare phenomenon in Florida this year, a soaking
rain. On our way from Venice to Orlando, we passed through
the fire-ravaged section of Interstate 4 that had been closed for a
number of days last month. In places, the fires had clearly
spanned both sides and the median of the highway and, even
after the rain the odor of charred vegetation was quite noticeable.

In Venice, my wife and I witnessed another rare phenomenon; at
least I thought so. We were taking our morning walk when two
large birds flew overhead emitting a very loud strange, multilevel
cry. I hadn''t heard this sound before and the birds seemed to me
to resemble the types of birds that my favorite show, "Sunday
Morning", often features in its closing nature segment. I
convinced myself that I had seen, for the first time in my life,
whooping cranes. When I mentioned my conjecture to our hosts,
I was rather disappointed to hear that they were probably wood
storks, which occasionally frequent the region.

But wait! Back in New Jersey, what should I see on the cover of
the February issue of my Smithsonian magazine but a picture of
wood storks. I naturally turned to the article "In Search of
Sanctuary" by Richard and Joyce Wolkomir. The article
described the plight of the wood stork, with the continuing
disappearance of its natural habitat in Florida. The wood stork
actually isn''t a very attractive bird in my opinion and is closely
related to the vulture family. Although I didn''t have my glasses
on when we saw the two birds in question, it seemed to me that
they had more graceful heads than the vulturish heads of the
wood stork. But then I read that the young wood storks have
quite a loud raucous cry when screaming for food. That certainly
fit the cries we heard in Venice. However, later in the article
there was the statement that as the wood stork matures, things
change drastically. The adult wood stork is mute! Our birds
certainly were not mute. So, as far as I''m concerned, I did indeed
see my first whooping cranes.

During my walks on the beach at Marco, I never ceased to be
amazed at how the pelicans could skim over the water and
suddenly dive into it, their head snapping forward at the last
second to snag the poor fish in its bill. The wood stork uses a
more leisurely feeding technique dubbed "tactolocation". It
wades in the water with its open bill submerged under the
surface. The stork doesn''t spot his prey visually but just moves
its bill back and forth until it feels a fish and in a flash (less
than a hundredth of a second) snaps the bill shut, trapping the fish. It
also shuffles its feet in order to flush out fish that are hiding.
All in all, the wood stork is a fascinating creature.

In Orlando, we spent a day at the Disney Animal Kingdom. I
really hadn''t expected too much of interest in this relatively new
Disney attraction but, as usual, I underestimated the Disney
creativity. The 3D bug movie was great; I''m a sucker for these
Disney 3D movies and their fabulous effects. Were my wife and
I really the oldest people in the park? And the Safari ride was
much more realistic than I had expected, with some of the flavor
of a real safari experience. I especially enjoyed the trail after the
safari trip, the prime attraction being a bunch of gorillas which
are also apparently part of a research project. The troop included
a huge silverback male who was beginning to encounter
impertinence from two 9-year old males feeling their oats. The
Young Turks were doing the equivalent of thumbing their noses
at old Silver and he didn''t like it one bit, taking off after them
and swatting them in no uncertain terms. I''ve been to many zoos
but never witnessed gorillas in such a close-to-natural
environment. I can see how Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey could
become so attracted to the study of primates.

But what fascinated me most was, as you might suspect, a
surprisingly simple attraction, a bird show called Flights of
Wonder. I''ve seen bird shows where the birds do tricks and ride
bicycles or such. This show was different in that the emphasis
was on what the birds do naturally. For example, a big owl flew
back and forth about a foot over our heads and its flight really
was virtually silent. Another bird would fly over to a member of
the audience and take a dollar bill from her hand and then return
it. But what impressed me most was a small parrot that looked
more like a pink pigeon. According to the trainer, it is quite
natural for parrots to mimic sounds they hear and she said that
this little guy had a repertoire that included seven songs. Sure
enough, it obligingly sang two of them for us, and not just a
couple measures but the whole darn songs! One was "Yankee
Doodle" and I must admit that parrot did a much better job with
both words and pitch than I would have done.

Watching this clever little bird perform reminded me of an article
I had read about a most unusual parrot and a researcher who had
a most unusual way of working with this bird. I have forgotten
where I saw the article but managed to find the parrot, whose
name is Alex, on the Internet. The researcher is Dr. Irene
Maxine Pepperberg, in the Department of Ecology and
Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Dr. Pepperberg, who has a joint appointment in the Department
of Psychology, has a rather unusual background for this kind of
work. She has a Bachelor''s and Masters degrees in chemistry
from MIT and Harvard and a Ph.D. in chemical physics from
Harvard in 1976. In fact, her Ph.D. work dealt with
mathematical modeling of chemical structures and reactions,
hardly what you''d expect for one who has since made seminal
contributions to the field of interspecies communication. Indeed,
it was while she was finishing her Ph.D. work at Harvard that she
realized that she really was more interested in animal behavior
than in chemistry. I was amazed that she managed to finish her
Ph.D. work while educating herself in the fields of animal
behavior, psychology and neurobiology. In 1977, she purchased
an African grey parrot in a Chicago pet store. This parrot, Alex,
proved to be a very wise purchase indeed.

How often have you heard the term "birdbrain" applied in a
derogatory manner? In general, most people have not had a
particularly high opinion of the capabilities of the bird''s brain.
Yet, prior to Pepperberg''s work, various kinds of birds had been
trained to count objects up to eight and to pick out certain objects
from a selection of different ones. But Pepperberg decided to try
to train Alex to respond vocally and she wanted to demonstrate a
capability to reason, not just respond to a stimulus or command.

To train Alex, Pepperberg used a technique developed by a
German biologist to teach phrases to grey parrots. This method
involves not teaching the parrot one-on-one but using two
trainers. One trainer is the parrot''s confidant or "mate" and the
other serves as the model, or perhaps rival. The model mimics
phrases uttered by the mate while the parrot stands by, watching
and listening. Finally, perhaps to gain the attention of its mate,
the parrot repeats the phrases used by the model/rival.
Pepperberg made a point of using various individuals as both
trainers and models so as not to allow Alex to get too attached to
any one person. This approach avoided the tendency of parrots
to become violently jealous when it comes to their "mates".

Pepperberg''s Web site provides interesting papers and
biographical data. One paper by Kenn Kaufman in Audubon
Sept/Oct 1991 describes a typical visit with Alex. Hold up two
different keys and ask Alex, "How many?" The response is not
immediate. Alex ponders his answer carefully before replying,
"Two." If one key is green and the other is a smaller blue key
and you ask "Which is bigger?", Alex again ponders for maybe
15 seconds and answers "Green key." Typically when Alex
answers correctly, he may get as his reward the object itself to
play with. Ask Alex questions about the number, color, size or
shape or even what''s it''s made of (e.g., wood, metal) and, if it''s in
his vocabulary, he''ll come up with the right answer 80 percent of
the time. He can also tell whether objects are the same or
different.

Alex can also be stubborn and it''s likely that a good many of his
"mistakes" are really intentional, designed to indicate his
irritation or to get the goat of his inquisitor. Perhaps he just gets
tired of all this nonsense. In one test there were six items on a
tray and he was asked to identify the green item. He named
every item but the green one and then tipped over the tray!
When left alone with a new student, he will ask for just about
every item in his vocabulary, keeping the student hustling to give
Alex what he wants. It seems that Alex likes to test the
newcomer''s own vocabulary to see if he qualifies as a true
member of the "flock".

The morning we left our hotel in Orlando for the airport, we got
a real bonus in the form of a "bird" of another variety. My wife
met a man who said the shuttle was leaving and he was running
to get his family so as not to miss it. I assumed that it was the
shuttle to the airport but it turned out to be the liftoff of
Discovery on its way to the international space station. Even
from Orlando the sight was pretty awesome and fulfilled my long
held desire to see a launch.

Fittingly, the Continental magazine on the plane had an article
about the work being done in Cleveland at the NASA Glenn
Research Center, where I''ve mentioned I worked for a couple
years. Of special interest to me was the work related to the space
station and I was surprised to find that one of the methods of
storing energy on the space station is the flywheel as an
alternative to storing the energy in batteries. I''ll have to look
into this for a future column.

Meanwhile, back home we''re eagerly awaiting the arrival of
another bird, the first robin of spring.

Allen F. Bortrum