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Alex the Parrot

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Alex the Parrot

October 9th, 2007  · stk

Alex died a month ago. NO! Not our Alex ... an African Grey Parrot. NO! Not just any parrot. A very special bird that could THINK! See the video proof. Amazing.

Alex the African Grey Parrot Dies at Thirty One

A month ago, on September 6th, Alex, an African Grey parrot, died. It was surprising - because African Grey parrots generally have a lifespan of 50 to 60 years in captivity. It was devastating - because Alex wasn't your normal, run-of-the-mill African Grey parrot. Alex was special - he demonstrated he could THINK.

Purchased by Dr. Irene Pepperberg in 1976 at 13 months of age, Alex (short for "Avian Language EXperiment") became part of a scientific team. For the past 30 years, Alex has been the focus of research into the cognitive abilities of African Grey parrots. The goal was to see if Alex could "think".

The hypothesis was simple. Humans have developed complex brains and language, partly because they live complex social groups. Primates, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, who also live in complex social groups, are generally thought to be the only non-human animals having brains with the ability to perform complex tasks. If "thinking" and language are tied to animals living in complex social groups, then perhaps parrots, which are much further removed from humans on the evolutionary chain, have the ability to think and communicate? (On the plus side, they can mimic human speech!)

The results from the experiments with Alex were both amazing and controversial, partly because it challenged the notion of human-centric intelligence. Regardless, I invite you to read on and see what Alex had accomplished. Some claim it's simply a very adroit form of mimicry, while others believe that Alex could actually think. Watch the videos on the next page and do some thinking of your own. Was Alex actually thinking? They might even challenge you to change how you view mankind's place in the world. ;)

alex african grey pepperberg alex african grey parrot pepperberg

The Intelligence of a Five-Year Old

When Alex died, he could identify 50 different objects, had a vocabulary of about 150 words, recognized quantities up to six and distinguished between seven colors and five shapes. More importantly, he had a grasp of concepts. He could tell you which objects were bigger, smaller, the same or different and why. He also understood a value of zero, which is an abstract thought.

Alex also displayed personality. He seemed to enjoy being in charge and delighted in ordering his humans to do various tasks for him. He would say, "I'm sorry," if he sensed that a researcher was annoyed with him. I would also get tired of his work and say, "I wanna go away."

Sometimes, Dr. Pepperberg and Alex would squabble, like an old married couple. "Calm down," Alex would say, when he noticed his handler getting agitated. "Don't tell me to calm down," Dr. Pepperberg would snap back.

Alex has also demonstrated the ability to formulate new words, which are derivatives of words he already knows. He called an apple a "banerry", the first time he saw a red apple. Perhaps it was because the outside looked like a big cherry and the inside was the color of a banana, both objects with which he was already familiar?

At his death, the limits of Alex's abilities had not been reached. In the days and months prior to his passing, Alex was learning new numbers (7 and 8), as well as English phonemes (the smallest units of speech). Alex could identify sounds made by two-letter combinations such as "SH" and "OR". He was also learning Roman numerals.

Watching Alex in Action

When I watch video of Alex, there's no denying that there's something very endearing to me, about watching a parrot think, talk and react with human-like intelligence. Perhaps parental instincts take over and we can help but feel some kind of visceral bond with animals that try to communicate with us. It's darn near impossible to watch the video objectively. Perhaps there's just a basic for humans to anthropomorphize, being the homo-centric species that we are?

Do you view Alex's skills with a great deal of skepticism, like so many in the scientific community do? They're concerned that Alex's achievements, as amazing as they are, might be nothing more than a sophisticated set of conditioned responses. His clever behavior might be ascribed to rote learning, mimicry or even, in some cases, unconscious cues by a trainer.

Dr. Pepperberg makes a challenging argument that such is not the case with Alex. The fact that Alex works well with different trainers, suggests that his responses are not being cued by any individual.

The scientific community, divided on the interpretation of the results of "The Alex Studies", all agree on one thing: Alex and Dr. Pepperberg achieved something very unusual in the history of animal studies. He will be sorely missed.

A necropsy on Alex found no apparent cause of death. He appeared to be in fine health the preceding day and no problems were reported during a veterinarian checkup Alex had, two weeks earlier.

The research will continue, using the two other African Grey parrots at the laboratory at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts. (The next oldest parrot is a 12-year old named "Griffin", but he's quite a bit behind Alex).

"Losing Alex is a huge issue," Dr. Pepperberg says, because it will set back her planned work, which includes a new grant for research on parrots' perception of optical illusions.

More Resources

The Alex Foundation (Home Page for the Dr. Pepperberg's Avian Language Research)

"Talking with Alex" (2004 Scientific American article)

The Alex Studies (Amazon link to the book by Dr. Pepperberg that covers the history, training and studies done with Alex)

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Updated: 11-Oct-2007
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1.flag Gary Comment
What a shame, that was a seriously talented bird. Those videos in your post were amazing, Alex could speak and count better than Yabba !

2.flag Gary Comment
Forgot to mention ... how cool is that bird going shopping helping itself to a bag of crisps ?

Gz ;)
3.flag stk Comment
Gz - Yeah @ seagull. Cool enough that I hunted down the video and am making it a separate post!

4.flag Lília Amorim Comment
Hello! I'm Portuguese! My mother-in-law has an African Grey like Alex called "Miguel" (in english Michael). Miguel can speak and has a dialogue with her. My mother-in-law says, "Where's children," and Miguel answers, "Children are at school - a, e, i, o, u!" In the morning, when he wakes up, he says, "Miguel want food, food please!" These birds, certainly, have an inteligent mind! I'm so sorry that Alex died!
5.flag Anonymous Comment
Such a shame he died. I can't imagine the bond she lost with the bird it's so depressing and really sad. My feelings go out to the family.