Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Alex, Pale Male, Low Expectations and Threatened Species

Photo of Alex, Courtesy of The New York Times

Editorial Notebook
Alex the Parrot
Published: September 12, 2007

Thinking about animals — and especially thinking about whether animals can think — is like looking at the world through a two-way mirror. There, for example, on the other side of the mirror, is Alex, the famous African Grey parrot who died unexpectedly last week at the age of 31. But looking at Alex, who mastered a surprising vocabulary of words and concepts, the question is always how much of our own reflection we see. What you make of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex depends on whether you think Alex’s cognitive presence was real or merely imitative.

A truly dispassionate observer might argue that most Grey parrots could probably learn what Alex had learned, but only a microscopic minority of humans could have learned what Alex had to teach. Most humans are not truly dispassionate observers. We’re too invested in the idea of our superiority to understand what an inferior quality it really is. I always wonder how the experiments would go if they were reversed — if, instead of us trying to teach Alex how to use the English language, Alex were to try teaching us to understand the world as it appears to parrots.

These are bottomless questions, of course. For us, language is everything because we know ourselves in it. Alex’s final words were: “I love you.”

There is no doubt that Alex had a keen awareness of the situations in which that sentence is appropriate — that is, at the end of a message at the end of the day. But to say whether Alex loved the human who taught him, we’d have to know if he had a separate conceptual grasp of what love is, which is different from understanding the context in which the word occurs. By any performative standard — knowing how to use the word properly — Alex loved Dr. Pepperberg.

Beyond that, only our intuitions, our sense of who that bird might really be, are useful. And in some ways this is also a judgment we make about loving each other.

To wonder what Alex recognized when he recognized words is also to wonder what humans recognize when we recognize words. It was indeed surprising to realize how quickly Alex could take in words and concepts.

Scientifically speaking, the value of this research lies in its specific details about patterns of learning and cognition. Ethically speaking, the value lies in our surprise, our renewed awareness of how little we allow ourselves to expect from the animals around us.

Indeed, this is certainly true in Alex's case but also how many times have low expectations due to the fear of anthropomorphism, diminished the ability of some to appreciate Pale Male and Company?

And from blog correspondent Carol Studebaker--

Species extinctions still rising, experts warn

Nearly 200 animals and plants have been added to a global database of threatened species, the World Conservation Union announced Wednesday, adding that the number is certainly on the low end.

And might those low expectations and the corresponding arrogance of humans have something to do with all the threatened species in the world?

Donegal Browne

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

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

Monday, September 10, 2007

John Blakeman On DNA and the "Previous" Asters

A photo of what used to be Aster umbellatus.

Seemingly, no sooner had I published the blog entry following this one with the above photo of Aster umbellatus, John Blakeman, native plant maven, sent an email flashing my way letting me know that Aster umbrellatus was no more. Poof! The whole genus Aster had been stricken from the North American firmament.

Here's what John had to say:


Your photograph of flat-topped aster is now something of a fraud.

The genus Aster as a native group of North American plants is no more. With a bit of genomic dissection it has been discovered that the DNA of each of the many North American aster plants is not closely related to the type genus in Eurasia. With modern genomic sequencing, the genus Aster no longer exists here (except for authentic asters brought in from elsewhere, as in gardens).

The flat-topped aster, formerly Aster ubellatus, is now in the new genus Doellingeria. It's now Doellingeria umbellata.

All of the other familiar wild asters are gone, too. Good old New England aster, once
Aster novae-angliae, is now Symphytricum novea-angliae.

There are now ten new "aster" genera here, none as true Aster. The nucleotide sequencers, deep in their dark and apparatus-filled labs, have overthrown a wonderful (but really inaccurate) genus in North America. Our old asters looked a lot like the real ones in
Europe and Asia. But genetically, ours are separate, now with a number of new, distinct and uniquely American generic names.
(Generic as in genus not as without brand name. D.B.)

So let's try to look at this as botanical progress (as it is). Good bye, Aster,

Welcome, Almutaster, Canadanthus, Doellingeria, Eucephalus, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oligoneuron, Oreostemma, Sericocarpus and Symphyotrichum.

For now at least, the common names will remain un-messed with. They will yet be "asters," with only a small and un-italicized "a."

--John Blakeman

Science marches on and the rest of us will need to trot a little faster than usual to keep up and remember those new uncommon "common names" when they eventually, as they no doubt will, come marching down the pike.

Donegal Browne

Flora and Fauna Loose Ends and Tidbits

Photograph Mark Brown
If you'll remember, a while ago, computer whiz Mark Brown, who often helps me with the maze of technology sent in a grand photo of a Stellar's Jay. He also sent the above photo from his vacation in the western U.S. and Alaska. Does anyone know what it is? It looks very familiar but so far I've not found it in my field guides.

And here's the plant, that distracted me during an earlier blog by it's mix of yellow and purple centers on the same plant. It's one of the Asters which are numerous and to add "interest" have been known to intergrade. But in this case, the mixed color centers are a product of time since initial blossoming. It's Flat Topped White Aster, Aster umbellatus, the yellow disk of which turns from yellow to purplish as time passes since blossoming . The give-a-way in this case being the mixed color disk which can be seen in the blossom at the apex of the photograph.

And from Andy Blatz of Michigan, a tip about Jewelweed. Not only is it a tasty treat for hummingbirds, but it 's helpful in reducing the symptoms of Poison Ivy. He says that upon finding oneself with Poison Ivy while in the field that crushing Jewelweed and applying it to the affecting areas is very helpful in calming the itch.
I admit I haven't as yet tried this personally as I haven't a current case of Poison Ivy. I considered giving myself a patch for research purposes but it was vetoed strongly by my family.
Therefore if you give it a try,
do let us know how it works for you.

Tis the season for Goldenrods and the crop in many areas is lush and beautiful. Therefore while out stalking the Warblers in migration do give your "warbler-neck" a rest now and again by looking down and enjoying it.
Donegal Browne