For the Birds Radio Program: Irene Pepperberg and Alex the Gray Parrot
Last week, on September 6, 2007, Alex the world’s most famous African Grey Parrot, died of unknown causes at the age of 31. Alex was the subject of the ground-breaking cognition and communication research conducted by Dr. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University and Harvard. According to the Alexfoundation.org website, “Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as “I want X” and “Wanna go Y”, where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 year-old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.”
I met Dr. Pepperberg early in the 90s at a couple of ornithological meetings. She is a warm and wonderful woman, and because she was at the center of a line of research so very near and dear to my own heart, it was extremely exciting getting to know her and talking about her important work. At the time, I had a Blue Jay named Sneakers who had a couple of words in her vocabulary—she could say “hi,” “c’mon,” and “Sneakers.” But her use of those words wasn’t at all like Alex’s. She imitated my voice, and seemed to talk most often when she missed hearing my voice, as if when she couldn’t hear the real thing, she could at least imitate it. I had a second Blue Jay named BJ who was extremely fond of Sneakers. BJ never said words at all until after Sneakers died. When BJ seemed extremely lonely, he started saying “Hi” and “c’mon” in Sneakers’ voice, perhaps trying to fill the auditory void. This of course was different from the way Alex the parrot learned to use words, in genuine communication. Irene’s recent papers have been about her studies establishing that Alex even had some understanding of the concept of zero and nothingness—a pretty sophisticated accomplishment if I remember the child psychology course I took back when Alex was a baby.
According to the alexfoundation.org website, Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks ago. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death. Dr. Pepperberg will continue her innovative research program at Harvard and Brandeis University with Griffin and Arthur, two young African Grey parrots who have been a part of the ongoing research program.
Alex has left a significant legacy—not only have he and Dr. Pepperberg and their landmark experiments in modern comparative psychology changed our views of the capabilities of avian minds, but they have forever changed our perception of the term “bird brains.” I’ve long chuckled at those people willing to spend millions of dollars in a quest to discover intelligent life forms outside of this planet. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to search for and find other intelligent life forms right here in our midst. Alex will be missed, but he’ll be remembered.