Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goodbye to the Smartest Birdbrain in the World

Those of us who love birds--especially parrots--can't help but mourn the passing of Alex, the amazing African Grey, who died last week at the age of 31. His death was unexpected--so much so that the news wasn't released until yesterday, because the staff at the Brandeis University research lab where Alex lived were too upset to report his death immediately.

Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who owned Alex--purchased at a pet store, his name was an acronym for Avian Learning Experiment--worked with the parrot for three decades. According to the Alex Foundation's press release,
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.
My husband and I have owned many parrots over the last 20 years, and each one possessed an individual personality (though many of them did seem like typical "bird brains"). Our current pet, a miniature macaw, doesn't talk like Alex did, but he's taken the art of laughing to a new level. (Really--parrots will laugh along with you, though I'm not sure they actually get the joke.)

A necropsy (animal autopsy) showed no immediate cause of Alex's death, and he'd appeared healthy at a check-up days before. In true parrot fashion, he probably had been sick for a while, but hid his weakness before just keeling over. (Showing weakness in the wild is an open invitation for parrot predators to attack.) So in the end there was probably nothing that the people who worked with--and loved--him could have done.

Alex spent his life at a variety of universities with Dr. Pepperberg; Brandeis was his last home. As a New Englander, I'm proud that he lived among us for the last several years. And although he was only 31--some African Greys live to be 50--Alex had a good run, taught us a lot, and gained the admiration and affection of plenty of us who never had the good fortune to offer him a treat.

Farewell, Alex--the bird (and human) world will miss you.

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