Tuesday, September 11, 2007



June 1976 - September 7, 2007

Alex died suddenly September 7th 2007.

Or perhaps he left us on September 6th, we'll never know, for Alex seemed fine when he went to roost in his night cage that evening. He'd just gotten a clean bill of health from his annual check-up not much more than two weeks ago. He'd been going about his life as usual, telling the lab assistants what to do, sounding somewhat disgusted with any errors and correcting his parrot colleagues, Arthur and Griffin with relish.

Yes, Alex had seemed fine and going on with his work as usual. Continuing to learn phonetics on his trajectory toward reading, identifying objects in photographs, working on hard to pronounce and compound words, and then it was time for bed.

As Dr. Pepperberg put him into his cage for the night, he said,"You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you. "

Yet in the morning he was dead.

For that is the way with birds, they are fine until they are not--and then they are gone. Someday Pale Male too will leave us. Flown with godspeed like Alex where avian spirits pass onward with the slightest breath of breeze against our cheeks. Notice, note, and delight in him and his kind while you can. Not one of us is forever.

Yes, Pale Male is the most famous and beloved raptor in the world, but Alex was the most famous and beloved parrot, bar none. Though many of us were positive that there was a great deal more going on in a bird's head than they were getting credit for, it was Alex, with the parrot's double trachea and therefore the ability not only to learn to understand English as many animals do, but also to speak it, who proved just how much was going on in the avian brain.

As those scientists who refused to believe that other creatures besides Homo sapiens could have language, and had the temerity to change the definition of language every time Alex and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex's scientist partner, crashed through the previous one, Alex just kept chugging along, learning more, splintering long held preconceptions and surprising everyone with his brains--and his personality.

A personality belonging to a wild creature that is tame not a domesticated one. A person-ality of facets, that included being smart as a whip while also being stubborn, endearing, frustrating, loving, hilarious, maddening, and capable of great humor. Yes, capable of parrot humor; humor of a very special kind.

During some of the learning trials, Alex only scored 80%, though at other times he was letter perfect. What was the problem? They were sure he knew the answers; he'd answered correctly a jillion times before. And that may well have been the problem. Alex being a smartie pants, was bored with the same old stuff over and over. Therefore he'd get things wrong on purpose. And he wouldn't just give out any old wrong answer either. Oh no.

One day Alex was presented with a tray of six blocks, and was asked, "How many?" A slitty eyed Alex it turns out, was in no mood to answer correctly. Now he didn't as I said, just say any old thing. He didn't look at the tray of six blocks and when asked how many, answer with say, "truck" or "paper" or "green". He said,"Two". When asked again, he said, "Five". In fact he answered with every number except the correct one, six, each time the question was asked. And when he'd run out of incorrect numbers, and was asked yet again, "How many?" He got even more slitty eyed and said, "Wanna nut."

When I heard that Alex was dead, I felt that vacuum one always feels upon learning of a death. Death is always a surprise, even when someone is ill. But for Alex to go at 31, when he might have naturally had decades longer though he had the best care avian science knew how to give, was even particularly sad.

Today, the rain falls, Quicksilver the African Grey that lives with me and has come with me this trip, sits in the window counting to himself, then asks to watch TV. I turn it on, the names of those killed on September 11th are quietly repeated. I open my jewelry box and there nestled on the velvet are a pair of earrings, never worn, safely encased in plastic. A pair of gold earrings from which hang a pair of small red feathers laid safely away. I pick them up, remove the earrings with their little red feathers from their protective wrappings, quietly put them in my ears and then--I remember another day.

Another day in particular, a chilly day when Samantha my younger daughter and I, filled with anticipation, scampered out of the subway and hot-footed down the blocks toward a small hall in hopes of a front row seat A hall where Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who worked with Alex, was going to give a talk.

Puffing, waiting for the walk light, Sam asked,"Will Alex be there?"

No Alex wouldn't be there. Alex didn't travel with Pepperberg; he stayed at home in the lab. Some years back Alex had developed a little respiratory infection. He'd been given antibiotics. He got better but then he got worse. More antibiotics were given but he was getting sicker and sicker. This wasn't good at all. Cultures were taken, and more drugs given. He'd get some better but then get worse again. He was seen by the top avian people in the country. Finally a diagnosis came that made sense of his illness. Alex had an infected air sac, not within his lungs but as birds have, an air sac far from the lungs in another part of his body. An infected air sac which did not respond to drug therapy. Alex was likely going to die. The question was asked, "Can't the infected sac be removed as terminally infected tissues of people are removed to save them?"

The answer came. Theoretically, yes, but it just hasn't been done with an air sac in a bird. There just isn't an avian surgeon with experience. No one does surgery on avian air sacs. It would be traumatic to a healthy bird's system and this bird is very ill. Surgery let alone an experimental surgery would kill him. Pepperberg, wouldn't give up. The word went out through the avian network, find a surgeon who can do it.

Far across the country was a surgeon who quietly had begun to work on just this area of avian surgery. This doctor seemed to be Alex's only hope. Dr. Pepperberg with an ill Alex flew across the country to see if the doctor would consider Alex as a patient. After examining him, he consented to give it a try though there were many risks. There was no guarantee. In fact chances for survival weren't good. Dr. Pepperberg has said that leaving Alex before the surgery was one the hardest things she'd ever done. He was in a strange place, sick, afraid, and asking to go with her. She explained, she talked, she comforted, she told him she loved him and then walked away with Alex calling after her over and over, "I love you, I love you...." And miraculously Alex lived and thrived. But from then on, no shoes entered the lab without first going through a disinfectant bath, protection against outside viruses and bacterium was strictly enforced. No chances were being taken that the birds were going to be exposed to anything if anyone could help it. It seemed to me that must be the reason that Alex didn't travel to see his fans.

Sam and I grabbed good seats and Pepperberg was wonderful. Her book, The Alex Studies had just been published. A kind, empathetic woman who obviously delights in science and in her work, she talked about her research but in ways that anyone might understand it. She explained her work, soldiering through without complaint, just as she had dealt with the slings and arrows of hidebound abusive colleagues, and currently endured with the rest of us the stifling air of a typical overheated New York City public room.

Then a short break before the question and answer portion of the presentation, where outside the hall, Pepperberg's books, and various mementos might be bought to support the work of The Alex Foundation. As Sam and I browsed, there on the table was a little notice that read:

The goal of The Alex Foundation is to support research that will expand the base of knowledge establishing the cognitive and communicative abilities of parrots as intelligent beings. These findings will be used to encourage the responsible ownership of parrots, conservation and preservation of parrots in the wild, and veterinary research into the psychological diseases and care of these birds. Through these efforts, The Alex Foundation will accomplish its mission to improve the lives of parrots.

Sam looked at me; I looked at her and said," What are we going to buy?"

First off a copy of The Alex Studies for both of us to read, then Sam chose an Alex poster with Alex's footprint "signature", and then an Alex mug to be autographed by Pepperberg, but I couldn't decide. I walked back and forth, looking at this and that when suddenly I spied a small rectangular display of six or so pairs of earrings. Five pair with grey feathers and one single pair made with little red feathers. What did it say? Alex Earrings? Yes, Alex Earrings, the woman behind he table said. When Alex molted his feathers, a few were collected and made into earrings.

Wow. Unbelievable! Having sought so long for samples of Pale Male and Company's DNA, usually fruitlessly, here, right in front of me was a sample of Alex's. What else could I say, whatever the price but, "Please, I'd like the red ones."

Alex and Dr. Pepperberg Photo and the following courtesy of the Alex Foundation

WALTHAM, MA (SEPTEMBER 10, 2007)—Alex, the world renowned African Grey parrot made famous by the ground-breaking cognition and communication research conducted by Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D., died at the age of 31 on September 6, 2007. Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in 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 phrases such as “I want X” and “Wanna go Y”, where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 year-old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.

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.Alex has been featured worldwide on numerous science programs including the BBC, NHK, Discovery and PBS. He is well known for his interactions with Alan Alda in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS and from an episode of the famed PBS Nature series called “Look Who’s Talking.” Reports on Alex’s accomplishments have appeared in the popular press and international news from USA Today to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The Science Times section of the New York Times featured Alex in a front-page story in 1999. That same year, Dr. Pepperberg published The Alex Studies, a comprehensive review of her decades of learning about learning from Alex. Many other television appearances and newspaper articles followed.

Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks ago. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death. Dr. Pepperberg will continue her innovative research program at Harvard and Brandeis University with Griffin and Arthur, two other young African Grey parrots who have been a part of the ongoing research program.

A Tribute For Alex


Photograph courtesy of www.brooklynparrots.com/

Quakers and Pigeons forage together, both species maligned as stupid nuisances and dirty besides. They are regularly destroyed without a second thought. And both species are creatures with brains conceivably as bright and clever in their way as Alex was in his. These birds can understand our language and do when exposed to it. They just don't have the equipment Alex was blessed with to respond to us in a way we can easily understand. In memory of Alex lend your voice to them.

Remember Quicksilver, the African Grey plotting revenge on New Year's Eve?
I'd always wanted a parrot, ever since reading Treasure Island and then I read about Alex, and I really wanted a parrot. But they're expensive and a lot of work--and then I ran across a three month old African Grey who needed rescuing. And Quicksilver came home with us. We recorded everything we could find of Alex talking and counting and identifying and showed it to Silver. And as there was a child in the house, the model/rival technique was built in. Silver now says what he wants and means what he says.

When I heard that Alex was gone, automaton like I walked over, picked Silver up, and lay down on the bed with him on my chest. Instead of his usual antics in this position, bobbing his head, saying "tickle" to have his head scratched, digging in the wrinkles of the pillow slip, he was still and silent. He just stared at me for several moments. Then dipped his head close to my face and said quietly, "What's wrong?" And I told him Alex was dead.

Donegal Browne


Marilyn said...

What a wonderful tribute to a fabulous spirit. You're to be commended.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine has a CAG that I would often interact with when it was very young (we got along very well). A few months ago, my friend was going away for a couple of days and asked me to come over and take care of the bird. I was told that the bird could now say a few words, but had not heard them myself.

Late during the first night while I was holding the bird, he grabbed one of my fingers and bit so hard I had to pry it loose and push him away. I then went into another part of the house to cool down, because my feelings were hurt more than my finger.

When I came back, I sat down on the couch and stared at the TV. The bird was on the other end of the room standing on top of his cage. Suddenly, I heard (clear as can be from across the room) "What's wrong?" On one level I was stunned, but another part of me instantly started explaining how biting my finger had hurt my feelings. The bird was completely quiet after that, and did not say another word through the next day, although we were back to friends and playing together again.

This relationship brings me to understand the kind of loss that the news about Alex brings to others, as well as why your bird knew something was wrong.

Anonymous said...

Aw, your story about you and Quicksilver's got me teary. I forget sometimes how wonderful the rerlationship between parrots and humans can be.....