Alex the Talkative African Grey Parrot Dies at Age 31

Posted on September 26, 2007

Alex the amazing talking African Grey parrot has died at age 31. Alex was raised and taught by Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her staff. Under Dr. Pepperberg's guidance Alex learned numerous words and could count to six. He had a concept of zero and could identify multiple objects, colors and shapes. LiveScience says Alex was more than a master of vocabulary -- he also "rattled our cage."

The Alex Foundation released a statement about Alex that also tells his story and his many intellectual feats. It says Dr. Pepperberg's research with Alex resultedin 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 phraseslike "I want X" and "Wanna go Y", where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. Alex was also able to "identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items."

In 1973, Dr. Pepperberg was working on her doctoral thesis in theoretical chemistry at Harvard University when she watched Nova programs on signing chimps, dolphin communication and, most notably, on why birds sing. She realized that the fields of avian cognition and communication were not only of personal interest to her but relatively uncharted territory. When she finished her thesis, she left the field of chemistry to pursue a new direction-to explore the depths of the avian mind. She decided to conduct her research with an African Grey parrot. In order to assure she was working with a bird representative of its species, she asked the shop owner to randomly choose any African Grey from his collection. It was Alex. And so the 1-year old Alex, his name an acronym for the research project, Avian Learning Experiment, became an integral part of Pepperberg's life and the pioneering studies she was about to embark upon.

Over the course of 30 years of research, Dr. Pepperberg and Alex revolutionized the notions of how birds think and communicate. What Alex taught Dr. Pepperberg about cognition and communication has been applied to therapies to help children with learning disabilities. 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 Dr. 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.

The Alex Foundation also says, "Alex has left a significant legacy-not only have he and Dr. Pepperberg and their landmark experiments in modern comparative psychology changed our views of the capabilities of avian minds, but they have forever changed our perception of the term 'bird brains.'"

A Yahoo Group has been set up here where people can post condolences for Alex. You can read some articles and obits for Alex in the New York Times, Boston Globe and NPR.

Alex will be terribly missed. If Alex could have lived longer it sounds like he could have made yet more progress and learned more words and numbers. Thank you Alex for enlightening us about what birds and animals are capable of.

If the news of Alex's passing has sparked your interest in talkative grey parrots you might want to read about another impressive African grey parrot named N'Kisi.

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