Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A 'Person' of Consequence Passes

Sadly, I note this morning the passing of a small grey bird. His name was Alex, and he was a 31-year-old African Grey Parrot. His job at Brandeis University was working with avian intelligence researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg to totally redefine what we knew,or thought we knew, about animal intelligence. This from MSNBC:
Pepperberg bought Alex from an animal shop in 1973, the parrot learned enough English to identify 50 different objects, seven colors, and five shapes.

He could count up to six, including zero, was able to express desires, including his frustration with the repetitive research.

He also occasionally instructed two other parrots at the lab to "talk better" if they mumbled, though it wasn't clear if he was simply mimicking researchers.

Pepperberg said Alex hadn't reached his full cognitive potential and was demonstrating the ability to take distinct sounds from words he knew and combine them to form new words. Just last month he pronounced the word "seven" for the first time.
I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Pepperberg and hear her talk about Alex. As one of her researchers said to me, off the record, if primate researchers had gotten the results Dr. Pepperberg had gotten with Alex and her other Grey Parrots, people would be ringing bells in churches.

My interest, of course, comes from living 14 years with Ripley, my African Grey Parrot. I was never particularly interested in birds as pets — companions — until I read an article in Audubon Magazine on Dr. Pepperberg's research with Alex. It was was an animal who appeared to think. Dr. Pepperberg would never claim that, of course...researchers don't reach conclusions like that. But read The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots, Dr. Pepperberg's book on her work, and make your own decision.

I read everything I could on Grey Parrots, then my Sweetie and I made the big step and purchased an amazingly ugly (and expensive) chick, less than one week out of his egg, from a truly eclectic pet store in downtown Denver. We visited the chick, whom we named Ripley from the Aliens movies, twice a week until he was weaned, then we took him home.

Most of our friends are thoroughly sick of Ripley stories...he has a huge vocabulary and speaks in context...that is, when he orders you to do something, he knows exactly what he is saying. As with Alex, he taught our second bird, a far less vocally gifted blue and gold macaw, Cleo, to properly pronounce words. If I tell him I'm going to be gone for three days, on the afternon of the third day he will ask my Sweetie, "Where's Michael?" He expects an answer.

One quick Ripley story — when he was a baby, he was never raised around mirrors. In fact, the first mirror he ever saw was our bathroom mirror when we took him in for his first shower. The mirror stopped him dead...there was another bird! We knew from our reading that it took a baby chimp approximately six months to realize that the image in the mirror wasn't another chimp behind a clear pane of glass. Ripley started at the mirror, then leaned forward and tapped it with his beak a couple of times. He then pulled back and — I swear! — stuck out his right wing, then pulled it back in. He tapped the mirror again, then slowly extended his left wing, and pulled it back in. And he never paid attention to the mirror again.

Through my parrots, and by extension, though Alex, I began to see animals differently. I shot my share of crows when I was growing up in Tennessee; but when I see the great mountain ravens that inhabit the high country with me, I see individuals that according to current studies rival Grey Parrots in intelligence and vocal abilities. I see a sentience, with memory, emotions and self-awareness. I wish I could see, however briefly, into their world.

So I mourn the passing of Alex, a small grey bird with a questing intelligence, who let us see however briefly into his world.
Pepperberg said the last time she saw Alex on Thursday, they went through their goodnight routine, in which she told him it was time to go in the cage and said: "You be good, I love you. I'll see you tomorrow."

Alex responded, "You'll be in tomorrow."


Anonymous said...

My parents had three birds...a conyer, a macaw, and an african grey. All three talk...and talk...and talk.

Including yelling "shut up!" at the conyer when he starts squawking.

They are a LOT smarter than people think. It's scary.

Anonymous said...

What a great story. Thank you, Michael.

My dear wife and I took ballroom dance lessons from a lady who lived with an African Grey. What a treat to see, hear and communicate with him!

With very best regards,

Michael Bender
Personal Protection Academy
Madison, Wisconsin

Anonymous said...

We adopted a cockatiel several years ago. I never thought that a bird could be much of a pet, but it was hand raised from an egg by a local breeder, and totally comfortable with humans. In fact, he picked us and not the other way around. Intelligent, affectionate, playful. Just like having another child. I can't get him to talk, but he does "wolf whistle".

Anonymous said...

I read the book. I was amazed at Alex's ability to understand the concept of zero!

I have a Eclectus, male.


Anonymous said...

I knew Irene Pepperberg when she was still at Purdue - met Alex back then. His vocab wasn't as amazing at the time. RIP.

Tom Pinto

James said...

I always thought birds were stupid until I started dating a girl that has three. I was stunned at what they could say to each other. Despite what others say about birds not understanding the words they speak, her birds talk to each other in ways that sure do sound a lot like real conversations.

Michael Bane said...

I would be totally heartbroken if anything happend to my birds. Its scary, because they're prey animals and they're hard-wired to hide weaknesses/sickness from the resk of the flock. According to published reports, Alex had had his annual physical two weeks before and was pronounced healthy.

I'm crazy about my beagle and the weird tailles Manx, but my parrots are my friends in the very real sense of the word. They have good days and bad days, go through phases, have days when they don't want to leave their cages or, alternately, come in from the aviary...or declare jihad on a pritcular piece of furnitue.

They like me not because they're genetically predisposed to, but because we all work at it, as you have to do with any friendship.

Ripley talks less as he gets older, largely because I think he's done such a good job of training us. Of course, when Mr. Flock Leader, aka, me, is not around, it's a lot of work to keep everybody else in line!

They have enriched my life...