Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Alex the parrot: prodigy or bird brain?

His death has been reported in the 'New York Times'; an Internet condolence book has been set up in his memory. So what made Alex the parrot so special - and so controversial?

By Stephen Moss  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Irene Pepperberg asks Alex, a grey parrot, to identify a green key.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

America is in mourning. Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average US president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31. He could count to six, identify colors, understand concepts such as bigger and smaller, and had a vocabulary of 150 words. To his supporters he was proof that the phrase "bird brain" should be expunged from the dictionary.

Alex was the star of the Alex (Avian Learning Experiment) Foundation, run by Irene Pepperberg at Brandeis University in Boston. She bought him from a pet shop in 1977, and has spent the past 30 years training him and analyzing his progress. "He was my closest colleague," a devastated Pepperberg said at the weekend. "Alex broke all preconceived notions about bird brains. He had the intelligence of a five-year-old and the communication skills of a two-year-old, and sometimes threw tantrums like a small child would. He would take his beak and knock everything on the floor."

The foundation has posted a lachrymose farewell on its Web site: "Please bear with us as we move though this difficult time of grief and regain our composure. We have received thousands of e-mails and continue to go through them. The support you have shown us is overwhelming and we are forever grateful."

An Internet condolence book has been started in his memory.

It seems that Alex's early death - African Greys are usually expected to live for 50 years or more - has spurred an outpouring of emotion. "As a parrot owner myself, you hope that your bird outlives you," says a poster on science Web site Slashdot. "And yet, in some ways, they're just so delicate. You can't take a nap next to your parrot because you might roll on to it."

The amount of coverage generated in the US by Alex's death - compared, say, with the average natural disaster in the developing world - also reflects the fact that he had become something of a TV celebrity, with, as the New York Times noted, "his own brand of one-liners." (These may not have been Johnsonian in their quality: "Calm down" and "Good morning" are among the examples cited.)

"You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you," Pepperberg reportedly told Alex when she said goodnight to him on that final evening. "You'll be in tomorrow," replied Alex. But for him that tomorrow never came.

As well as appearing on TV, Alex was the subject of numerous scientific papers in which Pepperberg sought to prove that when he talked, he was not just mimicking what he heard, but understood what he was saying. "Pepperberg's pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, seven colors, five shapes, quantities up to and including six and a zero-like concept," said the foundation in a statement announcing his passing. "He used phrases such as 'I want X' and 'Wanna go Y,' where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse and categorize more than 100 different items, demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species.

Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry."

But not all scientists accepted Pepperberg's pioneering findings. Some argue that Alex was no more than a clever mimic who, adept at social conditioning, was picking up cues from his long-time trainer. Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University famous for his language experiments in the 1970s with a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky, is on record as saying that Alex was making a "rote response." "In every situation, there is an external stimulus that guides his response ... . The words are responses, not language." He accepted that Alex was "a smart bird," but said there was, at most, minimal thought involved when he made his responses.

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