One brainy parrot’s last words

As Dr. Irene Pepperberg put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, Alex looked at her and said, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, at age 31, apparently of natural causes.

This is the first parrot I can recall who’s gotten his passing recognized by an article in the New York Times

But then Alex was perhaps the world’s most famous talking bird. The African gray parrot knew his colors and shapes, and more than 100 English words. He appeared in news reports, scientific papers, and on TV – he shared scenes with the actor Alan Alda on the PBS series Look Who’s Talking.

Dr. Pepperberg bought him at a pet shop in 1977, when she was a doctoral student. At that time, scientists thought that parrots could merely mimic words and sounds, rather than using language to truly communicate with humans.

But maybe Dr. Pepperberg and Alex have changed scientists’ minds. Over the next 30 years, Pepperberg taught Alex not just words, but how to count small numbers of things, and recognize shapes and colors. The Times reports: “When shown a blue paper triangle, he could tell an experimenter what color the paper was, what shape it was, and – after touching it – what it was made of. As parrots can, he also picked up one-liners from hanging around the lab, like ‘calm down’ and ‘good morning.'”

So think twice before you call someone a birdbrain. “That used to be a pejorative,” said Diana Reiss, a Hunter College psychologist who works with dolphins and elephants, ‘but now we look at those brains – at least Alex’s – with some awe.’

September 11, 2007

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