Brandeis scientist Irene Pepperberg knew that Alex, an African gray parrot whose advanced language and recognition skills shattered science’s understanding of the avian brain, would not be around forever to greet her in her lab each morning.
But his sudden death Thursday after 30 years of research has left Pepperberg and fellow researchers shocked, scrambling to piece together the remaining data from their latest work with the bird, and feeling as if they had lost a colleague.
“It’s devastating to lose an individual you’ve worked with pretty much every day for 30 years,” Pepperberg said yesterday. “Someone was working with him 8 to 12 hours every day of his life.”
Pepperberg purchased the parrot from an animal shop in 1977 with an eye to studying the avian brain. Eventually, Alex learned enough speech elements to identify 50 different objects, seven colors, and five shapes. He learned to count quantities up to six, including zero, was able to articulate certain desires, and even could express frustration with repetitive scientific trials.
Emotionally, his development was similar to that of a 2-year-old. Intellectually, he had the brain of a typical 5-year-old.
More recently, researchers had used what they had learned about how Alex’s brain developed to test new ways of helping disabled children to communicate.
“He was so extraordinary in breaking the perceptions of birds as not being intelligent,” said Pepperberg.
It is not clear what caused the death of the bird. The African gray parrot’s average life span is 50 years, Pepperberg said.
She said an animal care technician went to the lab Friday morning to clean and discovered the parrot dead in his 2-by-3-foot cage. A veterinarian cut short her vacation to examine Alex later in the day and found “nothing obviously wrong” with the parrot, Pepperberg said.
The vet did determine that Alex died shortly after Pepperberg had left the bird for the night Thursday.
Pepperberg said she and Alex went through their good-night routine, in which she told him it was time to go in the cage and said: “You be good. I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.” To which Alex said, “You’ll be in tomorrow.”
Pepperberg said she and her fellow Brandeis researchers have taken the bird’s death hard. She waited until yesterday to release the news, in part to give researchers time to get over the shock so they could speak about Alex.
Two other parrots remain in Pepperberg’s lab: Griffin, age 12, and Arthur, age 8. But Alex was the undisputed centerpiece of the lab’s work. When Griffin or Arthur would mumble their words, Alex was known to say “talk better,” Pepperberg said. Whether the bird intended to correct his associates or was simply, well, parroting what he heard the researchers say is not clear.
What is clear is that the bird had not reached a plateau in his cognitive development, Pepperberg said. As recently as this year, Alex was demonstrating the ability to take distinct sounds from words he knew and combine them to form new words.
Just last month, he pronounced, for the first time, the word seven. “We were working on some really interesting things,” Pepperberg said. The New York Times Company