ALEX and Irene Pepperberg, a Famous African Grey Parrot's Best Friend

African Grey Parrots seem to like to converse with people.
African Grey Parrots seem to like to converse with people. | Source

Raven Is Not the Only Trickster

Having taught two birds in the past to speak several phrases in English, I admire the work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg. She is especially well known for the work and friendship she achieved with one of her African Grey Parrots, Alex. As a child, she raised many, many parakeets and taught them all to talk. It was a lifetime career in the making.

The proof that these birds can reason and use English is inherent in one remarkable incident. Many times over the course of 30+ years, Alex decided not to answer questions or asked to go back to his cage instead. One day was different. Alex was answering questions about objects in front of him and the answers required more than simple memorization of words spewed out at random. When he reached the last question, he gave every answer possible, except the correct answer.

Dr. Pepperberg gave him a time out in his cage and left him all alone. In about 30 minutes, the doctor returned and released the now seemingly contrite bird, who instantly piped up "Sorry!" followed by the correct answer to the last question asked some little time ago. The length of memory of that question beats some human performance on memory portions of IQ tests, such as the Wechsler edition administered to adults. That bird was playing a joke during testing or had been fed up with answering and become a wiseguy. How human, we'd say.

Birds are Intelligent and Can be Tricky

Ravens having a chat. The raven is the Trickster of many Native American legends and lesson stories. They may not be the only ones.
Ravens having a chat. The raven is the Trickster of many Native American legends and lesson stories. They may not be the only ones.

Chimps and Birds

Chimpanzees totally disgusted with circus and side show lives can sometimes come to be placed in a retiree's camp for ex-performers like themselves. Documentaries about them show that when visitors attempt to persuade these individuals to performs tricks - even to shake hands - they turn their backs and sometimes walk away. They have had enough. Seven shows a week and an extra on Saturday makes a chimp irritable,to be sure; sometimes violent. Don't some of us feel like that at work, or before our parents or friends?

The drag drags on into depression. But the little grey bird seemed to be joking, as he was not tortured with tricks and tests every day, nor were they long or tedious. Yes, he was being a smart-beak. He was a person.

One evening, as quoted in the famous book, Alex and Irene each said goodnight in the usual way: "You be good, now. I love you." The next morning after over 30 years together, the staff found Alex simply dead as a lump of dough in his cage. They were heartbroken.

Some sources say he died of natural causes, though young still at 31; others blame a possible infection. Regardless, his work goes on with other greys, treated very well and actually themselves in charge of their activities.

Alex

Alex was famous in his lifetime; so much so that an obituary was published in the media in September 2007. The pet store chose an African Grey at random for Dr. Pepperberg when she began her research into animal communication and she got Alex.

Alex proved that he could differentiate among colors, he could count, and he could describe objects with unexpected accuracy. Just as Sister Kenny met professional resistance when she proved her simple treatment methods prevented polio patients from becoming paralyzed, Dr. Pepperberg met a strong resistance among animal scientists. The resistance and denigration do not matter, though, because her work is just as true as that of the Australian Nurse. Up Pepperberg!

Author and cat lover Lilian Jackson Braun said many times that the more you talk with and even read to cats, the more intelligent they become. This was one key with Alex - hours a day of just interacting with humans. It works for preparing a child for reading in school as well.

African Grey Parrots

Alex's Work Continues

  • The Alex Foundation - The Alex Foundation is still active, supporting important research that will expand knowledge in establishing the cognitive and communicative abilities of African Grey parrots, and pave the way for other species to be recognized as, intelligent beings (or as Star TrekĀ® would say, sentient).
  • The Alex Foundation Newsletter - The parrots of The Alex Foundation are animals and are allowed trh efreed as such. While achieving phenomenona; triumphs in animal communication, they are birds. "Each bird is in school for a total of 40 minutes a day (two sessions of 20 minutes each)..."
  • Irene Maxine Pepperberg -- visit her list of professional articles.

More by this Author


Comments 25 comments

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Thanks, moonlake -- Ravens are too smart to get caught on film, I guess! :) I enjoy birds of all kinds as well. We just discovered a hawk screeching in our neighborhood today - we're near a few parks. Parrots are hilarious companions, which reminds me that Microsoft used to have a parrot icon years ago that you could put on your computer desktop that would tell you jokes. They did away with it and I'm still sad.


moonlake profile image

moonlake 3 years ago from America

We have ravens all over our property but trying to get their picture is hard. I have to take the pictures from inside the house they fly off when I go out to take their picture just seem to know what I'm up to. We have had parrots and other birds in our home and they are so smart. Enjoyed your hub voted up


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I enjoy watching crows and Chip and Dale. Thanks, Shyron!


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

What fun!


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

I added the one of the pictures to the hub 'Adventures of Chip, Dale and Bob.' And just for you I called it the Crow Convention.

In this hub Hubby plays a trick on the squirrel and I made a little clip of the squirrel.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Oh good, then I can see the crows at Chilp, Dale, and Bob and others can see them too. This will be fun.


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

It looks that way, wish I could send you pictures. Maybe I will add it to my Chip, Dale and Bob hub.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

That is hilarious! You have a crow convention meeting at your house.


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

I like jokes also. After I left the last comment to you I walked into my kitchen and looked at 5 crows, they did not call Hubby today, he put the food out last night. I ran for my camera and when I returned they were gone. but I kept my camera handy and in about 10 minutes came back.

I think I got some good pictures.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Maybe! And they want to play jokes on me, but I like their jokes.


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

That is amazing, mayby the animals just sense the love you have for them and they want to be near you.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

I can just imagine the pigeon riding on the dog's back! What a wonderful family you must have, guest birds included.

In that pet shop, by the way, a macaw had tried to jump ontp my shoulder and he was just too big, so he walked around the tops of the aisle shelving next to me as I walked around with the parrot. The staff must have worked a lot with the birds, because they were very friendly. I've never seen such friendly shop animals anywhere else.


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

We do love the birds, all of them. In the ghost house in California we got a pigeon out of an oil slick and Mom cleaned the oil off but the pigeon could not fly for a while and would ride on the dog's back.

It is awesome that the parrot rode around on your arm.


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

We do love the birds, all of them. In the ghost house in California we got a pigeon out of an oil slick and Mom cleaned the oil off but the pigeon could not fly for a while and would ride on the dog's back.

It is awesome that the parrot rode around on your arm.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Shyron E. Shenko - I think you've given us more reasons for respecting birds as individuals and friends. You and your husband must really enjoy the mockingbird and crows communicating with you.

Once in a pet shop, a parrot jumped on my arm and rode around the store with me. He did not want to get off at closing time!


Shyron E Shenko profile image

Shyron E Shenko 3 years ago

Patty, this is amazing and yet I am not surprized. My husband whistles while he works outside and he has a Mockingbird that sit on our roof and whistles the tunes my husband just whistled and the crows fly over the house and call my husband in the morning, he goes out and puts food out for them.

I really enjoyed this story. Voted-up and shared.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

Thank you for this wonderful story. It is amazing.


viking305 profile image

viking305 5 years ago from Ireland

What an amazing story about Alex the Grey Parrot. Imagine he was able to understand and reason for himself. And to say sorry and know what it meant.

They all must have been heartbroken beyond measure when he died. A beautiful hub.


Purple Perl profile image

Purple Perl 5 years ago from Bangalore,India

Thanks for a delightful read, Patty.


jennysbus profile image

jennysbus 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

Great Reading. Very Interesting thanks


LillyGrillzit profile image

LillyGrillzit 5 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

Awesome article on animals. Thank you for sharing this Hub full of info. :0)


Cindy2011 profile image

Cindy2011 5 years ago from Canada's West Coast

I had heard about the talented raven through a documentary a while ago. I wonder how Alex perceived the world around him - from a bird's eye view -

Interesting article Patty. Good work.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 5 years ago from North America Author

Darski - Dr. Pepperberg was so sad she reacted like Terri did when Steve Irwin died. Irene never called Alex's speech skills "language" and tried to remain professional and not get too attached, but he was always her best friend. He could have lived another 30 years, but perhaps his brain would have become overloaded with knowledge. I miss Alex.

Mrs. Menagerie - Great comment; thanks!


Mrs. Menagerie profile image

Mrs. Menagerie 5 years ago from The Zoo

Animals are so much smarter than they get credit for! Great hub.


Darlene Sabella profile image

Darlene Sabella 5 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

Alex, how sad he's gone, I am such an animal love and so what do you think, I love it, this is another excellent hub and your writing style is superb, braveo for a great job done, I enjoyed this hub, rate up love & peace darski

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