My Favorite Parrot – R.I.P.

I was saddened to learn recently that Alex the African Grey Parrot passed away in September. At 31 he was almost as old as I am, and I had been under the illusion that Parrots lived to the wisened old age of say, the desert tortoise or that old turtle from that short story (what is it???) where the turtle stays with that rich family through three generations. They say the oldest known tortoise lived for 188 years. (Given to a royal family soon after its birth by Captain Cook in 1777. It died in 1965. Hm…does this sound like that story I can’t quite remember??) A koi was once documented as living to the ripe old age of 226.

Not Alex. Although African Greys can live to about 50, he was found dead on Sept 6th of “natural causes”. I’m going to repost an article I wrote a few years ago on Monet’s Lilies.

From: December 05, 2003

“If he really likes you, he’ll throw up into your ear…”

In the interesting Interview With A Parrot, we meet Alex, the African Grey parrot that speaks. Sounds basic enough. But this bird displays more than simple mimicry, and more than a learned response to specific stimuli (uttering the correct syllables for each presented object – i.e. “ball”). Alex apparently speaks with intent.


He is also, reportedly, able to count, distinguish objects by color, size, material, and texture, and even make comparative judgments such as “larger” or “smaller”. So far so good. Alex is interesting, right?

There’s more. He utters such phrases as “Wanna go back,” when he wishes to return to his perch or end a particular session. And more than continuing to learn, Alex has begun to teach. Or rather, he is being used to teach. When his fellow parrots observe Alex display a correct response, they learn markedly faster than when the response is
demonstrated by a human teacher.

Alex has stumped animal behaviorists and linguists alike. In fact, he’s challenged the current tenets of the neurological of language, which veers into the sticky what-really-separates-humans-from-animals debate.

Language development was long believed to be an evolutionary achievement of the advanced primate brain. (Chimps can, apes can, monkey’s can’t.) If Alex really can communicate with language, then it’s a product of much less gray matter than we ever imagined. Alex has a brain the size of a walnut.

Researchers lecturing on the current data supporting the uniquely primate origins of language, are reported to reluctantly add, “”Except…for that damn bird.”

Why is this so surprising? Anyone with a pet daily sees animals displaying repeated, predictable behaviors in order to communicate something, especially to communicate a desire. Most of our pets simply lack the vocal mechanisms needed to produce complicated speech sounds.

The bird-brained pets that can produce these sounds, have been assumed to lack the required mental faculties and have not, until now, been trained in anything but pure mimicry.

But true language is more than simple gesture, even when the gesture clearly communicates an attitude, desire, or idea. It takes complex and abstract thinking to pair symbols (words) into intricate strings or patterns that create the consistent and meaningful expression of concrete ideas. It’s this kind of functioning that makes Alex’s
abilities so startling. Just what’s going on up there, anyway? Of course many of Pepperberg’s colleagues refute that it is anything more than learned, reward-driven behavior devoid of comprehension or a volition to communicate. At this point it seems difficult to discern, but when I read accounts of various owners of African Greys who tell of their bird switching on a lamp to better find a bead that has fallen on the floor, or, hearing unfamiliar sounds in another room calls out, “What’s going on in there?”, it certainly makes me wonder.

As Pepperberg says, “Grey parrots, such as Alex and Griffin, are never going to sit here and give an interview the way you and I are conducting an interview and having a chat. But they are going to produce meaningful, complex communicative combinations. It is incredibly fascinating to have creatures so evolutionarily separate
from humans performing simple forms of the same types of complex cognitive tasks as do young children.”

When she leaves the lab for the night, Alex will call after her things like “Goodbye. You be good. I’m gonna go eat dinner. See you tomorrow!”

More info:
Pepperberg’s Site

The Alex Foundation.

Phoenix and Alteira
ParrotLearn. This site says that it is “subjective” about the abilities
of Parrots to speak and think. It’s not, but there are some cute
stories here.

New York Times Article.

Also check out Steven Pinker scientist and author of The Language Instinct and Words and Rules and How The Mind Works I haven’t read these yet, but the reviews have been incredible.

(Words and Rules)
“When a gifted scientist and a gifted writer are all in one, you
have Steven Pinker. He takes you by the hand and leads you through the
mysteries of language by studying something you will never guess,
irregular verbs. It turns out to be a riveting story and totally
fulfilling. I couldn’t put it down.”

— Michael Gazzaniga, author of The Mind’s Past

“How the Mind Works explains many of the imponderables of everyday life. Why does a face look more attractive with makeup? How do”Magic-Eye” 3-D stereograms work? Why do we feel that a run of heads
makes the coin more likely to land tails? Why is the thought of eating worms disgusting? Why do men challenge each other to duels and murder their ex-wives? Why are children bratty? Why do fools fall in love? Why
are we soothed by paintings and music? And why do puzzles like the self, free will, and consciousness leave us dizzy?” (From Book Jacket)


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