Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Alex, the African grey parrot, Psittacus erithacus and his colored blocks.

Image: EurekaAlert. [wallpaper size]

As you know, I have spent my life researching, breeding and living with birds, especially parrots. I have also had the distinct pleasure of meeting Irene Pepperberg several times, both at professional meetings as well as at avicultural meetings. However, yesterday, I received the devastating news that Alex the African grey parrot, who was both a study subject and colleague to Irene Pepperberg, died unexpectedly on 7 September 2007, at 31 years of age.

Even though Alex was a research animal, he was much more than that. He was both a teacher and colleague, as well as a long-term friend to Irene. This species of parrot generally lives to be 50-60 years old, so Alex was only middle-aged when he died. Alex had always been a healthy parrot, however, he once was gravely ill with aspergillosis, an infection of the lungs and other body tissues caused by the fungus, Aspergillus [free PDF (scroll down) and PDF] (my own experience with aspergillosis in parrots is that is is nearly impossible to cure). Despite this illness, Alex’s cause of death will not be known until after a necropsy has been completed. A necropsy is an autopsy carried out on an animal’s body.

Irene Pepperberg purchased Alex from a Chicago pet store in 1977, when he was approximately one year of age, or perhaps younger. Pepperberg named him “ALEX”, the acronym for the research project, Avian Learning EXperiment, was randomly chosen by the shopowner from his collection of African grey parrots at Pepperberg’s request, since she sought a bird that was an average representative of its species.

Alex, being quite a character, quickly took over Pepperberg’s life by teaching her all he knew about cognition and communication. As early as 1999, he was able to “identify 50 different objects and understand quantities up to 6; he could distinguish 7 colors and 5 shapes, and understand the concepts of ‘bigger’, ‘smaller’, ‘same’, and ‘different’, and he was learning ‘over’ and ‘under’,” according to the New York Times. By 2002, Alex had a vocabulary of more than 100 words.

Alex’s learning process is based on the rival-model technique in which two humans demonstrate to the bird what is to be learned. Alex and Pepperberg have been affiliated with Purdue University, Northwestern University, the University of Arizona, the MIT Media Lab, the Radcliffe Institute, and most recently, Harvard University and Brandeis University.

Alex’s abilities were not limited to the lab, however. As a television guest star, Alex deftly upstaged Alan Alda in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS [PBS video]. Later, in 1999, Pepperberg published The Alex Studies, which is a comprehensive review of her decades of learning about cognition and communication from Alex, research that she has applied to helping children with learning disabilities.

Alex was in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks ago. According to the vet who conducted his necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death.

Even though Alex is gone, Pepperberg’s work continues with Alex’s two avian companions, both African grey parrots, Griffin and Wart (Arthur). If you would like to help keep her research going, please send a donation in Alex’s memory to;

The Alex Foundation
c/o Dr. Irene Pepperberg
Department of Psychology/MS-062
415 South Street
Brandeis University
Waltham, MA 02454
781-736-2195
alex@alexfoundation.org

A press release about this tragic and sudden loss will be published on Monday.

You are welcomed to post your condolences regarding this sudden loss of a great colleague and teacher.

Comments

  1. #1 cyberthrush
    September 8, 2007

    Even for those of us with birds, let alone with cats or dogs, it’s hard to imagine spending 30 years of one’s life with a non-human companion and workmate! Sincere best wishes to Dr. Pepperberg for her incredible loss. Of course Alex will live on in many many ways…

  2. #2 Kathy Heaton
    September 8, 2007

    The best memorial for Alex would be the continuation of the program. If you want to help, please make a contribution to their work.–Jamie Whittaker
    [Direct link: http://www.alexfoundation.org/support.htm ]

    Blogged by Krissi Sandvik:

    “Remembering Alex with a smile”

    Following is part of an interview with Dr. Pepperberg where she relates one of my favorite stories about Alex (named for Avian Learning EXperiment). Enjoy (then go hug all of your animals).

    There are some things that the birds do that, colloquially speaking, “just blow us away.” We were training Alex to sound out phonemes, not because we want him to read as humans do, but we want to see if he understands that his labels are made up of sounds that can be combined in different ways to make up new words; that is, to demonstrate evidence for segmentation. He babbles at dusk, producing strings like “green, cheen, bean, keen”, so we have some evidence for this behavior, but we need more solid data.

    Thus we are trying to get him to sound out refrigerator letters, the same way one would train children on phonics. We were doing demos at the Media Lab for our corporate sponsors; we had a very small amount of time scheduled and the visitors wanted to see Alex work. So we put a number of differently colored letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and asked, “Alex, what sound is blue?” He answers, “Ssss.” It was an “s”, so we say “Good birdie” and he replies, “Want a nut.”

    Well, I don’t want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat a nut, so I tell him to wait, and I ask, “What sound is green?” Alex answers, “Ssshh.” He’s right, it’s “sh,” and we go through the routine again: “Good parrot.” “Want a nut.” “Alex, wait. What sound is orange?” “ch.” “Good bird!” “Want a nut.” We’re going on and on and Alex is clearly getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he looks at me and states, “Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh.”

    Not only could you imagine him thinking, “Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?” but the point was that he had leaped over where we were and had begun sounding out the letters of the words for us. This was in a sense his way of saying to us, “I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it,” which gave us the feeling that we were on the right track with what we were doing. These kinds of things don’t happen in the lab on a daily basis, but when they do, they make you realize there’s a lot more going on inside these little walnut-sized brains than you might at first imagine.

    For more information about Dr. Pepperberg’s research, Alex and the other two African Greys: Griffin and Wart (Arthur), visit http://www.alexfoundation.org .

    New group: Remembering Alex
    http://pets.groups.yahoo.com/group/Remembering-Alex

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  3. #3 Library Diva
    September 8, 2007

    That’s very sad to hear. My heart goes out to Dr. Pepperberg and to everyone who knew Alex.

  4. #4 knobody
    September 8, 2007

    oh no! this was so sad to read. my condolences go out to dr. pepperberg and all of alex’s colleagues and friends.

  5. #5 Dulci
    September 9, 2007

    Losing an avian companion is very hard. After a year and half, I am still grieving the loss of my lory, Harpo. My condolences to Dr. Pepperberg.

  6. #6 HH
    September 9, 2007

    @Dulci,

    I agree, losing an avian companion is definitely hard. I still think about the Dusky lory I lost to an accident way back in ’93. Since that day, I believe that birds are happier wild and vow to never keep a bird as a pet, unless it’s to rehabilitate them.

    Alex, what a wonderful bird. I remember watching videos of that bird’s demonstrated intelligence and realizing that now the world will know how smart birds really are.

    Kudos to Scienceblogs for carrying this story.

    Henderson

  7. #7 Theo
    September 9, 2007

    I’m terribly sorry for Dr. Pepperberg. One can grow awfully attached to a companion, be it human or other, over 30 years.

  8. #8 Adam
    September 9, 2007

    As the owner of several parrots, including a TAG, I can feel your pain. I also owned a CAG which passed away when he was 5 due to an undetectable disease. It’s so difficult.

    For those that aren’t aware. These birds are super intelligent, speak well, learn well, and are great companions. They show apathy, and can be your best friend. It’s easy to hold a conversation with them – they can actually talk back!

    I have always followed the research on Alex, because it’s always spiked an interest. When people ask me about my parrots, and how smart they are, I have always referred them to look up Alex – just to see how smart they can get!

    Please accept my deepest sympathies.

  9. #9 Rob
    September 9, 2007

    Alex was an amazing individual. The Alex Papers, PBS interview with Alan Alda, and many, many other articles introduced us to this amazing bird.

    As a bird owner, I understand that these things happen. Aspergillus is an evil disease. Still, it’s a shock, especially in an animal who should have lived much longer.

    The rival-model method, used to teach Alex, is now used not only with parrots but with humans, especially those with certain mental handicaps. Strange though it sounds, Alex helped to make this world a little better.

    I don’t remember if the story is apocryphal or not, but as I remember it, Dr. Pepperberg had to leave Alex at the vet’s. As she left, Alex cried “Don’t go! I love you!”

    True or not, it gives me the words I most wish to say:

    “Don’t go, Alex. We love you.”

  10. #10 Jodi
    September 9, 2007

    This makes me so sad. I remember watching videos of Alex when I was a kid, and the awe and amazed wonder I always felt at how very intelligent he was. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for African Greys because of that, and it always makes me sad to see one in a pet store because I’m thinking of Alex and want to take him/her home with me.

    My condolences for your sad loss.

  11. #11 Rita
    September 10, 2007

    This is breaking my heart.

    Alex single-handedly changed my life. Drastically. Permanently. The amazing things he taught us convinced me that I HAD to “be owned by” a grey. My little Joe taught me that everything they said about Alex was true….and so much more. He is the love and the light of my life, and a constant source of amazement.

    I also got a rep for lying about my bird….”Crazy woman!!! Birds can’t do things like that!!!!” So, like someone else that posted, I was constantly telling people “look up Alex”!!!

    The “N-U-T” story reminded me of a young Joe who was obcessive/compulsive about his nite-nite routine. Just like a kid at bedtime, he’d say “Wanna drink”. I’d say what would you like tonight? He would give me one of three answers: “Wanna drink o’ water”, “Wanna drink o’ ice water” or “Wanna drink o’ Dr Pepper.”….(which, by the way, I later learned not to give him.) He had a few sips of his choice and then went happily off to bed. One night we went through this routine and Joe asked for ice water. I was tired and sick and just wanted to get to bed and didn’t take the time to drop in a couple cubes of ice. Well, Joe looked at the glass of water, gave me the dirtiest look you can imagine, looked back at the water, repeated the dirty look again, leaned toward me and said VERY slowly in the most condescending voice possible: “I-I-I-ICE water” :) :) :)

    Ah, but Alex, we will miss you…………Dr Pepperberg, our hearts go out to you.

    Guess there’s celebrating at the Rainbow Bridge, though….their “star” has arrived!

    *

  12. #12 Belva
    September 10, 2007

    signing up for newsletter

    thank you

  13. #13 Greg Laden
    September 10, 2007

    Is there any information on what will be a presumed study of Alex’s neurobiology? See:

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=1241

  14. #14 tigtog
    September 10, 2007

    What sad news. I remember reading about him years ago (before the internet even) and being utterly fascinated. What a bird.

  15. #15 John Petrocelli
    September 10, 2007

    Wow ..
    Having an african grey in my life for over 17
    years myself, this news immediately made me
    realize how my own bird – Angel – is to me.

    Angel has outlasted relationships. Been their
    when my grandmother and other family members
    have been around. She is my only link to the
    past.

    It is remarkable how my bird has never gotten
    sick … always been there …. Alex’s death
    reminds me how lucky I’ve been to have this
    companion in my life.

    John Petrocelli
    The New York Hypnosis Center

  16. #16 Susan Williamson
    September 10, 2007

    I am heartbroken to learn of Alex’s death. His intelligence and personality opened the world to the ideas of avian intelligence, and has truly left this world a better, brighter place. I extend my condolences to Dr. Pepperberg and the rest of Alex’s flock. I know they will long mourn the empty place Alex left behind.
    Because of Alex, my relationship with my own Grey, Joey, (J.B.) has a greater level of understanding and communication. I am constantly amazed by the love and capacity for intellectual communication that these wonderful creatures possess.
    Thank you, Alex and Dr. Pepperberg, for educating the world.
    Susan and J.B., the African Grey

  17. #17 Brad S
    September 10, 2007

    I recently saw Dr. Pepperberg give a presentation on animal consciousness where she shared a lot of her work with Alex. As a fellow pet owner and animal appreciator, this is very heart breaking. Its a sad loss for science and sentient beings everywhere.

  18. #18 Jack
    September 11, 2007

    I will never forget Alex or the first time that I saw him. It was in October of 1999. I was at a public gathering and in one corner of the room there was a TV with a PBS channel tuned in. A friend of mine grab me and said you have got to see this bird on the TV. My life has never been the same. I went out and searched for my own Alex. Two months later, I eventually found a grey that I traveled 25 miles each day to hand feed. “Bo” has been with me ever since. She is part of our family. I want to thank Dr. Pepperberg, for all the work she has done and all the hearts she and Alex have touched. Our thoughts and prayers go out to you, your family,staff and students this most difficult time.

  19. #19 Judy Davey
    September 12, 2007

    I was so saddened to hear of Alex’s passing this morning on the news.
    I feel sad for Irene & everyone who knew & loved Alex.
    He was an extraordinary parrot.

    I have an African grey as well, Mozart is 13 years old.
    It’s so hard to lose a pet, they become just like children to their human companions.

    My condolences to all.

  20. #20 Saqra
    September 12, 2007

    Dr Pepperberg and little Alex did so much towards understanding communication.

    I’ve always been so happy to see that he was a research bird clearly being given plenty of love and stimulation.

    My heart bleeds for you all… 30 years is a very long time.

    Condonlences,
    Saqra (companion human), TAG “Pepper” (20 yrs), TAG “Gabi” (20 yrs), CAG “Rocky” (13 yrs)

  21. #21 Rick
    September 13, 2007

    I believe Dr. Pepperberg is a brilliant scientist and has made a huge contribution to science and has helped people appreciate the intelligence of parrots. She also has discovered some applications that can help children with learning disabilities and perhaps autism. I have followed her work for many years with Alex. Yet I am somewhat conflicted over the way Alex has been used for this work. Alex didn’t volunteer to work between 8-12 hours per day as a scientific subject. If as Dr. Pepperberg has stated Alex had the equivalent human intelligence of a 5 year old–we all saw how smart he was–can anyone imagine a 5 day a week, 40 hour per week drilling of tests and cognitive exercises for a 5 year old human child. Alex clearly felt the stress he was under and verbalized it many times. He also developed a severe feather plucking problem. I recall seeing photos and videos of him with zero red tail feathers and extensive plucking elsewhere. I am saddened that Alex never got to have a life as a companion of either a human or even another parrot. He was just a designated day worker who allowed Dr. Pepperberg do achieve great things. I wished for many years that she would eventually allow Alex to retire from being her prize experimental subject and have a normal life. I thought this might yet happen as he was middle age now by African Grey standards. I wish Dr. Pepperberg will be more humane with Alex’s two surviving experimental peers (although it seems clear now that Alex may never have a peer in terms of intelligence in this species). The Human Society should review practices of researchers with highly intelligent animals like parrots, dolphins and other marine mammals. I have several parrots that have lived with me for many years and I can tell you that my largest one has an emotional intelligence way past age two, actually past many humans I know. I am saddened Alex is gone, but at least he is free from the daily involuntary testing regimen.

  22. #22 joanne hankins
    September 13, 2007

    im so sadened to hear of this news, but i’m also saddend that he had to be living in a laboratory and being drilled day after day. what other life did he know? the outdoor sounds, the wind, light rain, the inside house walking and playing with toys on the floor, to be kissed and tickled by the owner? eating dinner with the family in his own little chair with family and their dinner too. or just his own quiest and his own playtime with his own special toys?????? where is a video of his off time? how many trench coats did he see every day, and how many different people was he in contact with. these birds are very stressed with more than 1 or two people that they bond with. I think Alex was tired of working, and tired of being drilled like in a work camp. i think he was just wanting to rest!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. #23 joanne hankins
    September 13, 2007

    im so sadened to hear of this news, but i’m also saddend that he had to be living in a laboratory and being drilled day after day. what other life did he know? the outdoor sounds, the wind, light rain, the inside house walking and playing with toys on the floor, to be kissed and tickled by the owner? eating dinner with the family in his own little chair with family and their dinner too. or just his own quiest and his own playtime with his own special toys?????? where is a video of his off time? how many trench coats did he see every day, and how many different people was he in contact with. these birds are very stressed with more than 1 or two people that they bond with. I think Alex was tired of working, and tired of being drilled like in a work camp. i think he was just wanting to rest!!!!!!!!!!!

  24. #24 Susan
    September 13, 2007

    Poor Alex, RIP, we love you. You should have lived to be at least 50 years of age, if not 100. But because of exploitation and stress, you died prematurely, in the name of scientific research. No one looked out for your health, you even got an infection (aspergillus). In your natural habitat you would have been free. Yes, you said “I want to go back” back to another time and place. Frustrated, exasperated and tired, you’ve gone back.

  25. #25 Caucasian Jesus
    September 13, 2007

    This one’s for you, Alex: nnnn–uuuuhhh—tttt!

    Rest easy.

  26. #26 Kathy
    September 13, 2007

    Dr. Pepperberg and Alex did wonderful work in the study of the avian brain — and added to our understanding in how best to care for our companion birds. I am so sorry to hear of Alex’s passing, and I will be forever grateful for the wonderful work he and his collaborator (Dr. Pepperberg) have done.

    I gave my Timneh an extra hug tonight.

  27. #27 Amy
    September 14, 2007

    I loved watching Alex, he was truely a unique bird,
    the following hyme kept repeating in my mind after l
    heard that Alex died,
    “All things bright and beautiful,
    all creatures great and small,
    all thing wise and wonderful,
    the Lord God made them all”.

    To Rick, l don’t think that this bird was abused in anyway, I have a very intelligent A G myself. It is only when l do not interact with it that l find him to be picking his feathers. They need a lot of love care and
    attenion. This lady loved her bird to know all his known abilities, she knew all about how the brain works and understood how their birdie brain worked.

    PS l have an AG that is 9 year old, and believe you me if l try to push it to do tasks that he does not want – he can bite back. You have to understand these things to unable Alex to suceed to communicating and inacting with a human – you have to get the bird to trust you first.

    I think that Dr. Petterburgh was an excellent scientist – she didn’t work in a lab that abused the animal – l think that she had them there because she loved them so much that she concentrated on her own work and alternatively inacted with her three parrots to teach them and learn something from her teaching about them…..

    I am only saying the above as l too love my parrot so much that l cannot bear to be without him for even a second, and each time he learns something it only makes one come to realise how they brain is working…..

    To me Dr. Petterburgh has been an inspiration as l have taught my parrot so much and l have learn that they look forward to the love and attention you give them be it through phycial activity or mentally interactiving with them – they hold so much secrets to be unfolded.
    I can understand Dr. Petterburgh’s research when referred to helping children with disibilities – yes her work is great – in the same way one can understands how the A Greys brain work, one can understand the same way this can help children…..One can only speak through experience in t in this field…

    After training my own Parrot and personally knowing his known abilities one can full appreciate Dr. Petterburgh’s work……

    Beautiful Alex may you rest in peace…..

  28. #28 Steve and TigerBird
    September 14, 2007

    As a breeder, owner, trainer and lover of Greys, I deal with their intelligence everyday. They are smarter than some people I know. Most owners call them ‘Scary Smart’… I used to keep track of all the new and amazing stuff my TigerBird does, but it got to be too much. I used to keep a daily log and eventually couldn’t keep up with it.
    I’ll leave you with one short story. When I’d to go to the closet to get my coat, getting ready to leave, Tiger would say ‘bye bye’. Then it got to the point where I was heading for the closet, he would say ‘bye bye’. Then it got to the point where we were TALKING about leaving, and he would start saying ‘going bye bye’. Need I say more. Now, we just assume that he understands everything we say to him. One of his latest phrases is “Don’t cry about it”. Well, I can’t help it. Alex is gone and the world will not be quite the same. RIP Alex.

  29. #29 Jessica
    September 16, 2007

    I am so sad for Alex and Dr. Pepperberg. I had to keep going under different sites, hoping that the ones I was seeing were just rumers, and Alex was still alive and healthy. He was truly a wonder bird. He lived a happy life and learned a lot more things than most parrot learn in their life time. The first time I read about Alex was on a practice test for my 7th grade New York State test, I have been amazed with him ever since. Poor Alex. :(

  30. #30 Brando Parrot
    September 18, 2007

    Avian Learning EXperiment ALEX
    ….Parrots are more than pets, they are truly a sacient being…yes they “know” Parrots learn from us and add it to there survival skills passed on genetically and first hand from their parents when hatching out of the egg.
    Like the big bang this all happens in somewhat of an instant. Then they “know”.
    Parrots will learn whatever is usefull to them…getting your attention, demanding food, keeping their territory safe and secure..
    Then, what I find extremely unique…they want to understand “our world” Parrot share our space in time.
    I believe they know us even when we wre not in their view..they are connected. That sacient life force, we feel with special communication. Parrots are US.
    Alex was such a being willing to give himself to experiments on cognition and communication.
    Now Alex has joined the parrot paradice and will be waiting for us when we get there.
    Read the Times article about his sudden death too.
    We are out there and so are they. Goodluck Alex.
    God Be with you…..I love you too.
    Brando, CaptJohnTM Parrot

  31. #31 Gayle Balcon
    September 20, 2007

    I just want to say how sorry I am to hear the lose of Alex. We have had parrot, including an african grey for over 17 years. On August9th, we lost our Mexican Redhead Amazon, Sweetpea at the age of 16 suddenly. It is so hard to realize how sick these little creatures really are, we are so heartsick about his death. You expect them to live forever.We still have 3 wonderful feathers companion and we love them to death. My heart goes out to you Irene, we morne together.
    My sincere thoughts to you
    Gayle Balcon

  32. #32 Carolyn Powers
    October 3, 2007

    I personally worked with Alex in Tucson, AZ on two occasions. Dr. Pepperberg treated Alex as a pet, not as an exploited science experiment. He clearly adored her. One Sunday afternoon my ‘job’ was to spend time with Alex and to let him just ‘be a bird’. There was a cardboard box for him to chew. Also at hand was a dish of fresh fruits and veggies for him to pick and choose. When he tired of hanging out in the box he climbed onto my shoulder where he began requesting various food items for me to fetch for him! I found his environment a loving one, not abusive. Dr. Pepperberg was concerned with his stress level. Being in this lab was like being in one’s kitchen at home amidst a hub of stimulating, fun activity, and lots of loving, caring people. The knowledge I gained from my interactions with Alex and Dr. Pepperberg have benefited me well in understanding my two African Greys. My fellow African Grey owner friends share my grief over Alex’s death. I feel sorry for people who don’t understand the important contribution Alex has made to society on so many levels. I also appreciate the previous requests for contributions to the AlexFoundation!!! I am pleased to tell you that I have done so and will continue to support this important work. Thank you, Alex, for having touched my heart. I think of you every time a have a “cork nut” (almond). Rest well, precious parrot!!! Love, Carolyn

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