In memoriam: Alex the Parrot, 1976-2007

alex.jpgSometimes a bump in the road knocks us out of the rut we often find ourselves in, and we get an unexpected glimpse of what a miracle the world really is. OK, I know this is corny.  But a bird by the name of Alex — may he now rest in peace — helped to do do this for me and many others. He was the real thing, as is Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the animal psychologist and companion who learned to converse with him, in clear English, patiently worked with him for years, and opened a hitherto almost completely unknown window into the minds and emotions of animals outside the primates.

Alex, an African gray parrot, died last week, but not before showing us something deep and important about how much closer we are to other animals than we sometimes like to think. Here is a partial list of Alex’s accomplishments, from Wikipedia:

pepperberg_and_alex.jpg“Pepperberg, listing Alex’s accomplishments in 1999, said he could identify fifty different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different,” and that he was learning “over” and “under”. Alex had a vocabulary of about 150 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that, but if there was no difference between the objects, he said “none.” When he was tired of being tested, he would say “I’m gonna go away,” and if the researcher displayed annoyance, Alex tried to defuse it with the phrase, “I’m sorry.” If he said “Wanna banana”, but was offered a nut instead, he stared in silence, asked for the banana again, or took the nut and threw it at the researcher. When asked questions in the context of research testing, he gave the correct answer approximately 80 percent of the time.

You’ve gotta hear this for yourself.  Check out this video  [The Diane Sawyer commentary is a bit difficult to take but the video reveals a little of Alex’s amazing abilities.]

 

 

 

     

How would Alex say goodbye? Pepperberg says that she imagines it would sound something like what Alex would say to her every night before going to bed: “You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.”

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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