Tonight, I’m holding my own private Irish wake for Alex, the extraordinary parrot. (Pass the Bushmill’s, folks. This is going to be a tearjerker.)
Alex, an African Gray parrot, whose linguistic prowess put many-a-kindergartner to shame, is dead at the tender age of 31 of unknown causes. (In case you haven’t been studying up on avian lifespan, large parrots can live to be over 80.) If this strikes you as less than tragic than I’m willing to bet that a) you have a heart of stone, or b) you were unaware of Alex’s intellectual gifts. If you fall into the latter category, allow me to get you up to speed . . .
Alex was no ordinary parrot. He had a job. He worked with Brandeis Psychology Professor Irene Pepperberg trying to unravel the mysteries of animal cognition. And he managed quite a lot in his short time on earth, including mastering over 100 words. He accomplished so much, in fact, that he earned a spot on Wikipedia. That’s more than you can say for most grad students, let alone parrots.
What did he do exactly? I think Temple Grandin tells it best in her book “Animals in Translation:”
[Alex's] achievements are nothing short of revolutionary, because up until Alex came along no one had ever been able to teach birds much of anything at all. It wasn’t because they hadn’t tried, either. Bird researchers had spent hours and hours trying to teach birds concepts like color, and no bird had even come close . . . Birds seemed like real birdbrains.
So it was a huge shock when Irene Pepperberg succeeded where every single person before her had failed. Not only could Alex learn categories like color and shape . . . once he’d learned categories, he could spontaneously answer questions like ‘What color?’ and ‘What shape?’ about brand-new objects he’d never seen before.
And that’s not where Alex’s talents stopped. He was also a real cut up, as evidenced by the following story:
Not very long ago, Dr. Pepperberg began trying to teach Alex and another gray parrot, Griffin, to sound out phonemes, which are the sounds that letters and letter combinations represent. English has forty phonemes altogether. She and her colleagues wanted to see if the birds understood that words are made out of letters that could be recombined to make other words, so they started training the birds with magnetic refrigerator letters.
One day their corporate sponsors were visiting Dr. Pepperberg’s lab, and she and her staff wanted to show off what Alex and Griffin could do. So they put a bunch of colored plastic refrigerator letters on a tray and started asking Alex questions.
“Alex, what sound is blue?”
Alex made the sound “Sssss.” That was right; the blue letter was ‘S.’
Dr. Pepperberg said, “Good birdie,” and Alex said, “Want a nut,” because he was supposed to get a nut whenever he gave the right answer. But Dr. Pepperberg didn’t want him sitting there eating the nut during the limited time she had with their sponsors, so she told Alex to wait, and then asked, “What sound is green?”
The green example was the letter combination “SH” and Alex said, “Shhhh.” He was right again.
Dr. Pepperberg said, “Good parrot,” and Alex said, “Want a nut.”
But Dr. Pepperberg said, “Alex wait. What sound is orange?”
Alex got that one right, too, and he still didn’t get his nut . . . Alex was obviously getting more frustrated by the minute.
Finally, Alex lost patience.
Here’s the way Dr. Pepperberg describes it: Alex gets very slitty-eyed and looks at me and states, ‘Want a nut. Nnnn, uh, tuh.”
Well, Alex, all I can say is thanks for having patience with us hardheaded humans. You will be missed.
And, at the risk of being accused of sappiness, I’d also like to send out my condolences to Dr. Pepperberg. Parrots mate for life and my hunch is that Dr. Pepperberg was Alex’s chosen mate. I came to this conclusion after reading about an interchange between the two of them in “123 compute:”
“Calm down,” Alex, an African Gray parrot, told Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist at the University of Arizona who owns him. “Don’t tell me to calm down,” Dr. Pepperberg snapped. Sometimes Dr. Pepperberg and Alex squabble like an old married couple. He even says, “I love you.”
That kind of devotion tends to cut both ways. So Dr. Pepperberg, I raise a glass to you too.