Alex, The Famous Talking African Grey Parrot, Has Passed Away But His Legacy Lives on

Alex Changed the Perception of "Bird Brain," Giving it a Whole New Meaning

African Grey Parrot
African Grey Parrot | Source

Remarkable Cognition and Talking Ability

Doctor Irene Pepperberg is a scientist (adjunct professor of psychology, Brandeis University; lecturer at Harvard) who has become recognized the world over for her research with parrots and related studies into avian cognition. She worked extensively with a parrot named Alex, an African Grey that proved to be a remarkable student. Pepperberg's "Alex Studies" forever changed perceptions about avian intelligence.

In 1977, Irene visited a pet store. At the time, she had completed a doctorate at Harvard in theoretical chemistry and she'd felt inspired by the intelligence of dolphins and chimps. She was interested in pursuing this further but with an avian subject.

She found what she was looking for, a one-year-old African gray parrot that she subsequently purchased and named Alex, for Avian Learning Experiment.

She and Alex were about to embark on an adventure that would ultimately change the course of her life and forever alter perceptions about avian intelligence and cognition. Alex would go on to blow the lid off regarding avian communicative ability and he would quash the notion that parrots are mere mimics, with no cognition around the words they choose to use.

Dr. Pepperberg says that Alex was at the emotional level of a 2-year-old child. If Alex became tired, he would fling objects off trays, signaling he had had enough, and he would state, "Want to go back."

After 15 years of being an only bird and being the center of attention, other parrots were brought into the lab.

According to a New York Times Sunday Book Review article, "The Caged Bird Speaks" by Elizabeth Royte, Pepperberg related that Alex was cocky and precocious. He would occasionally "butt in" on other experiments with parrots, adding his insights or counting when other parrots refused to do so, and he would correct the other birds in their answers.

And he was also possessive of Irene. If she greeted one of the other birds first in the morning, Alex would be out of sorts and would refuse to cooperate. He never forgot the special bond they'd forged and he well knew he had been the first bird.

Alex understood the concept of larger-smaller and he could identify 50 objects. Pepperberg said Alex had the intellectual capacity of a 5-year-old.

The reviewer also came under Alex's spell when he repeatedly asked for a nut and finally resorted to spelling it out, which even stunned Pepperberg.

Alex Far More Than Just a Research Parrot

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Alex's Abilities

  • Alex could identify objects and say what they were
  • He learned to identify 5 shapes
  • Alex recognized 7 colors
  • He understood the concept of same and different
  • He knew that objects were bigger and smaller

Alex and Me: A Scientist and A Parrot Discover A World of Animal Intelligence

Alex & Me

“Alex & Me,” is Irene Pepperberg’s touching memoir of her 30-year research working with a feisty and remarkable African gray parrot name Alex.The duo would go on to garner legions of fans.

This book is eye-opening and a thoroughly enjoyable read, a chronicle of a working relationship that forged a lasting legacy.

Something almost magical happens when humans can actually talk with animals and those animals understand and respond. This particular magic is captured in Alex & Me. A great read for all who are fascinated with with African grey parrots.

Pepperberg's Books

 
 
Alex & Me
The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots

Alex's Final Words

Sadly, all good things come to an end... After a normal day, with nothing out of the ordinary, Pepperberg engaged in her usual nighttime routine with Alex and put him in his cage. The last thing that Dr. Pepperberg heard Alex say was, "You be good. I love you. I'll see you tomorrow."

A Fateful Evening...

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Final Sleep

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An Unexpected Passing

The morrow, however, brought great sadness. Alex had gone to sleep for the very last time and did not waken, as usual, in the morning.

That feisty ball of feathers, a precocious parrot that had taken the scientific world by storm, had left unexpectedly. His sudden passing was met with shock and grief.

Understandably, the person he spent the most time with was deeply impacted.

Tragic Loss

Alex, the African Grey parrot who played such a pivotal role in ground-breaking cognition research, passed away at 31 years.

Irene Pepperberg (Animal Cognition Scientist) | NOVA scienceNOW

More Than Just a Working Relationship

When asked about her relationship with Alex, Pepperberg said, “We were very, very close colleagues." And she added, “Think about working with a colleague for 30 years. That’s the kind of relationship we had."

Irene went everywhere with Alex and she described his death as a huge hole. She said it was like losing a child or losing a spouse. "For 30 years Alex was the center of my life." Pepperberg keeps Alex’s ashes close by.

Alex's Passing Given Wide News Coverage

An Unbreakable Bond

When interviewed by managing editor Greg Ross of American Scientist Online, about her feelings for Alex, Pepperburg related that while trying to maintain a professional working relationship with Alex, (a collegial relationship, as she called it), "After he died" she said, "that barrier crumbled and I realized just how much I had been denying and pushing away all those years."

Alex's Impact on Dr. Pepperberg

Alex's Legacy

  • Knowledge about cognition and communication gained from studies with Alex has been used to help children with learning disabilities, based on the rival-model technique.
  • The Alex Studies are Pepperberg's comprehensive review, chronicling decades of "learning about learning" from Alex.

Alex's name was an acronym for the research project, Avian Learning EXperiment.

Alex

June 1976-September 2007

If you would like to support avian research, please consider making a donation in Alex's memory to:

The Alex Foundation, c/o Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Department of Psychology/MS-062, 415 South Street, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA 02454.

Alex Featured in Programs

  • Alex interacted with Alan Alda in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS.
  • Alex was featured worldwide on numerous science programs, including BBC, NHK, Discovery and PBS.

Goodbye To Alex, a Gifted Parrot

Good-Bye to Alex

Alex had become the world's most famous parrot. His passing generated an outpouring of grief from fans the world over. Alex may have spent a short time on this earth but this remarkable African Grey left a lasting legacy.

*Copyright Athlyn Green (M. Rhodes). Do not copy.

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© 2007 Athlyn Green

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Comments 14 comments

CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Interesting hub. Alex sounds like he was a truly remarkable parrot and will be much missed. I've always thought that we humans underestimate the intelligence and capabilities of animals. We compare them to us, but they have their own unique skill sets and intelligence which are superbly adapted to their habitats


Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country

I know someone with an African Grey. Every time she walks in the room he says, very insistently, "Where have you been ?"

Nice article.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

I've read about Alex before, what an amazing bird! But the idea that birds are smart is no surprise to people who have lived with them. I once had a beautiful little parakeet named Buzzy who was a songster. He could whistle the theme to the Olympics as well as part of The Ode to Joy. Visitors would do a double take when they heard him whistle songs. When we were at home, his cage door was always open. He followed us around the house and was interested in everything.


nia 2 years ago

I have tree parrots


Nia Scobie-Singh 2 years ago

I feel so sorry.


Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green 5 years ago from West Kootenays Author

Hi Billy,

This doesn't surprise me. Parrots are incredibly creatures. thanks for sharing. The parakeet sounds remarkable and it must have been missed.


Billy H. 5 years ago

I have a parakeet (mounted) that was owned by my Aunt and Uncle. It died in 1958, and had learned over 100 words during its lifetime, and could recognize other family members that visited. My Uncle would broadcast on his Ham radio (K4GVU), and the parakeet would frequently start talking also, sometimes bursting into laughter when my Uncle would laugh. It is amazing what some of the avians are capable of learning with human contact.


Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green 8 years ago from West Kootenays Author

Hi Drax,

Actually, for those who are part of the avian world, parrots' remarkable abilities are known and accepted. There's a whole field of avian behaviorism, which recognizes that parrots are intelligent and sensitive creatures.

I will share some of my insights, since I've had the opportunity to share my life with 4 parrots. Each bird demonstrated remarkable skills but my observation is that those skills are brought to the fore when a human spends much time going one-on-one with a parrot--especially when the bird is young.

My Grey parrot Bailey started talking at 2 months and would form entire sentences. If he learned how to say something that we had worked to teach him, he would change it around until he had made it his own. Bailey would comment on people and had an innate ability to read them. He was learning to count and would actually ask us questions. Imagine having a pet you can have a conversation with!

Bailey showed me that animals are far smarter than we give them credit for.


Drax profile image

Drax 8 years ago from NYC....

I suppose the only problem here is that Alex was so unique and we see few parrots jumping up, as it where, to fill his shoes...

.


Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green 8 years ago from West Kootenays Author

Alex's death is a great loss because this African Grey parrot demonstrated remarkable cognitive abilities and proved that parrots are capable of reasoning and communicating their thoughts, over just mimicking sounds.

I also owned a Congo Grey and his ability to ask questions, convey his feelings and identify people and objects showed me how remarkable these creatures are.


fishskinfreak2008 profile image

fishskinfreak2008 8 years ago from Fremont CA

What is the big deal about a parrot's death?


Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green 8 years ago from West Kootenays Author

I've included new videos of Alex and Dr. Pepperberg.


Athlyn Green 8 years ago

Thank you for your comments.

I clicked on the video and it seems it is no longer available. I will try to find other Alex videos. His passing may have been the reason for the video being pulled.


Gimme A Dream 8 years ago

This is an interesting read and sad at the same time the the parrot has died. On a technical note, the page is interesting with well place ads and links to other posts. I wish that the video had been present because I would have enjoyed seeing Alex in motion. Thank you for showing me.

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