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

Updated on June 5, 2014
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 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.


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