- September 6
) was an African Grey Parrot
and the subject of a thirty-year (1977-2007) experiment by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg
, initially at the University of Arizona
and later at Harvard
and Brandeis University
. Pepperberg bought Alex in a regular pet shop when he was about one year old. The name Alex is an acronym for A
periment.His successor was Griffin.
Before Pepperberg's work with Alex, it was widely believed in the scientific community that birds were not intelligent and could only use words by mimicking, but Alex's accomplishments indicated that birds may be able to reason on a basic level and use words creatively. Pepperberg wrote that Alex's intelligence was on a par with that of dolphins and great apes. She also reported that Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old human and had not even reached his full potential by the time he died. She said that the bird had the emotional level of a human two-year-old at the time of his death.
Pepperberg, listing Alex's accomplishments in 1999, said he could identify fifty different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of "bigger", "smaller", "same", and "different," and that he was learning "over" and "under". Alex had a vocabulary of about 150 words
, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that, but if there was no difference between the objects, he said “none.” When he was tired of being tested, he would say “I’m gonna go away,” and if the researcher displayed annoyance, Alex tried to diffuse it with the phrase, “I’m sorry.” If he said “Wanna banana”, but was offered a nut instead, he stared in silence, asked for the banana again, or took the nut and threw it at the researcher. When asked questions in the context of research testing, he gave the correct answer approximately 80 percent of the time.
Preliminary research also seems to indicate that Alex could carry over the concept of four blue balls of wool on a tray to four notes from a piano. Dr. Pepperberg was also training him to recognize the Arabic numeral “4” as “four.”
In July 2005, Pepperberg reported that Alex understood the concept of zero.
Dr. Pepperberg was training the bird to recognize English phonemes, in the hopes that he would conceptually relate an English written word with the spoken word. He could identify sounds made by two-letter combinations such as SH and OR.
Alex's death came as a complete surprise; the average life span for African grey parrots is fifty years. He had appeared healthy the day before, and was found dead in the morning. According to a press release issued by the Alex Foundation, "Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks [before his death]. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death." According to Pepperberg, Alex's loss will not halt the research but will be a large setback. The lab has two other birds, but their skills do not approach Alex's.
On 4 October, 2007 The Alex Foundation posted the Pathology results: "Alex died quickly. He had a sudden, unexpected catastrophic event associated with arterosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries"). It was either a fatal arrhythmia, heart attack or stroke, which caused him to die suddenly with no suffering. There was no way to predict his demise. All of his tests, including his cholesterol level and asper levels, came back normal earlier that week. His death could not be connected to his current diet or his age; our veterinarian said that she has seen similar events in young (<10 year old) birds on healthy diets. Most likely, genetics or the same kind of low-level (impossible to detect in birds as yet) inflammatory disease that is related to heart disease in humans was responsible."
Some in the scientific community are highly skeptical of Pepperberg's findings, pointing to Alex's alleged use of language as operant conditioning
. Critics point to the case of Clever Hans
, a horse who could apparently count, but who was actually taking subtle cues from his trainer. In another case, Nim Chimpsky
, a chimpanzee named after Noam Chomsky
, was thought to be using language but later shown to have been imitating his teacher. Dr. Herbert Terrace, who had worked with Nim Chimpsky, says he thinks Alex performed by rote rather than using language; he calls Alex's responses "a complex discriminative performance."
Pop Culture References
In Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, Jimmy watches old DVDs of Alex performing. Alex's kenning
"cork-nut" is referred to throughout the book.
- "Holding a colored cloth ball in front of the bird, Pepperberg asks What matter? in the kind of laboratory pidgin she uses to train her subjects. Alex - who can identify wood, plastic, metal and paper, among other matter - clearly says wool. Having answered correctly, he's entitled to a reward - but he has to ask for it. Unlike animals in conventional conditioning experiments, he gets nothing unless he asks for it by name, after having given a right answer to a question. Want a nut, he says, and then happily begins nibbling away at the cashew he is given."
- "When Dr Pepperberg left Alex with a vet for treatment, Alex vocalized the words 'Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back.'
- According to Dr. Pepperberg, the final time she saw Alex was on Thursday September 6. They went through their goodnight routine in which she told him it was time to go in the cage. She recalls that Alex said, "You be good. I love you." She responded, "I love you, too." He said, "You'll be in tomorrow," and she responded, "Yes, I'll be in tomorrow."
- Upon first being presented with a red apple, and having learned no word for the fruit, Alex coined a new word: “banerry”. This word is generally considered a portmanteau of the two fruits “banana” (for the texture of the interior) and “cherry” (for the color and shape). Dr. Pepperberg considered this an example of “complex two-way communication”, wherein Alex was translating a concept as he understood it into a form comprehensible to humans by using his limited English vocabulary. This concept also translated when Alex referred to a green apple as a "banerry". Alex later referred to a golden delicious apple as a "banerry".