Alex the African Grey Parrot, who along with researcher and owner Irene Pepperberg, revolutionized our understanding of how the human brain works (not to mention revolutionized the way we look at birds — specifically birds in the parrot family), died last week at Brandeis University at the age of 31.
Since African Greys live 50 years, his death at 31 came as a shock to the Brandeis University researchers who work with Alex. The Boston Globe is reporting natural causes as the culprit, and the delay in the announcement of Alex's death (Alex died Thrusday), was to give the researchers who worked with him time to mourn.
Alex was a bit of a celebrity in scientific circles. I remember first hearing about him when I was just out of college and living with a bunch comparative psychologist geeks in Western Massachusetts. It seems that Alex proved that some non-primates could learn to clearly communicate with humans, rather than just mimicking words and sounds that humans make.
Anyone who's ever owned a parrot (ranging from the smallest Parrotlet all the way up to giant Blue Hyacinth Macaw) could've told the researchers that.
By the time it was over, Alex had a vocabulary of more than 100 English words. He had enough of a vocabulary to make up his own sentences. Without prompting, he could identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, and 5 shapes. He could count from zero to 6 — mind that he understood the concept of "zero" — and was learning the concept of "7" at the time he died. Heck, Alex could even tell the researchers when he was frustrated because of all the repetitive experiments.
In short, he had the emotional make-up that was equivalent to that of a 2-year-old human child, and the intellectual capacity that was equivalent to that of a 5-year-old child.
That's not to say that Alex reasoned things out or applied logic like a human being (I don't think anyone would even claim that). After all, as someone who's dealt with various kinds of parrots for most of her life, I can tell you categorically that birds to birdie things for birdie reasons. The fact that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to human beings is beside the point.
The most amazing thing? There was nothing extraordinary about the origins of Alex. Pepperberg bought the 1-year-old parrot from a Boston-area pet store when she was a doctoral chemistry student at Harvard University. She was inspired, she said, by a PBS Nova documentary on how animals communicate. His name, Alex, was an acronym: Avian Learning EXperiment.
Work with Alex certainly benefited the real world, beyond expanding our understanding of how the avian brain works. Research with Alex changed the way we've taught disabled children to communicate.
Good-bye Alex. You were were more than just a fun bird to watch, you were a bird that changed the way we look at your species. Thank you for the good times.
Photo by Mike Lovett for The Boston Globe
- Alex Foundation Web page
- Boston Globe Obituary
- New York Times Obituary
- Brandeis University Obituary
- Boston Globe photo gallery of Alex through the years.
- Alex's Segment on Scientific American Frontiers (PBS)
- 2005 Boston Globe Magazine article on Alex
- New York Times Obituary
X-posted to IJ and GJ