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Alex the parrot’s death touches campus

Published: September 21, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


Two weeks ago, Brandeis and Dr. Irene Pepperberg (PSYC) lost an important member of the community–Alex the African Grey Parrot. 31 years old, Alex had worked with Dr. Pepperberg for the past thirty years and accomplished feats that no one would have imagined possible for a bird.

Alex was a bird with extraordinary abilities that surprised many who met him. Among many things, Alex understood a zero-like concept;

could speak more than 100 words;

was able to count to six;

could identify colors and shapes;

and understood bigger and smaller, same and different, and absence.

It has been reported that Alex hadnt reached his cognitive potential. He had recently finished another study on numbers and had just begun a project involving optical illusions.

Pepperberg said that she first met Alex when she bought him in an animal shop in 1977. Pepperberg told of how a store worker chose him out a group of eight parrots;

her rationale for that action was so that nobody could argue that he was special in any way.

Unable to pinpoint one crowning accomplishment of Alexs, Pepperberg simply said, every time he did something new, he broke stereotypes. However, one important lesson that Alex taught her was patience.

Pepperberg believes that something people can derive from Alex and his work is perseverance because this is something that is an issue not just for Alex. Recalling how people doubted that a bird could perform like Alex, Pepperberg mentioned how she had trouble getting funding to support her research at first. Even now, she doesnt have a formal position at Brandeis, being an adjunct associate professor.

In reference to Alexs legacy on both the Brandeis community and the field of scientific research in general, Pepperberg mentioned how he shattered all our preconceived notions of what it meant to be a bird brain.

Before Pepperberg last saw Alex, he spoke the words you be good. See you tomorrow. I love you, a phrase which had become a regular ritual between the two of them. So, to Pepperberg, there was nothing different that night than any other night.

Asked to describe Alex in a few words, Pepperberg said that what might have been special about him was that he was inquisitive. Though Alex had to repeat words and answer the same questions many times so that the data could be subjected to statistical tests, a task that even a normal human being might find tedious, he was always really eager to learn new material. Even when he became bored with a current project, he was so excited whenever they started something new.

Alex has been the subject of articles in such reputable papers as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, even being featured on Good Morning America in a countrywide tribute to his life and work. Pepperberg said that she believes the reason people were so fascinated with Alex was simply the fact that he was unique.

Reflecting on how differently people reacted to Alex before and after having met him, Pepperberg mentioned that people initially werent sure how much he really comprehended, but once they witnessed his intellectual capabilities, they were pleasantly surprised to see that he was really doing what had been reported. Pepperberg stressed the difference between the words teaching and training that people used to refer to how Alex had acquired his skills. She emphasized that it was more teaching than training because Alex was an avid participant in the whole process.

Pepperberg plans to continue her work with her two other African Grey parrots, Griffin and Arthur. In reference to the possibility that these two might one day become as talented as Alex, Pepperberg said she believes they have the potential, and well just have to see what happens.