Alex, the renowned African grey parrot who helped researchers better understand the avian brain, died on Sept. 6. Cause of death was “a sudden, unexpected catastrophic event associated with arterosclerosis” (hardening of the arteries). He was about 31 years old.
Irene Pepperberg, a professor at Brandeis University’s Department of Psychology, purchased Alex from a Chicago pet store in 1977. Over the next three decades, she taught the parrot how to count to six and identify seven different colors. Alex could name 50 different objects in English and grasped the numerical concept of zero. Even in his advanced age, Alex continued to learn new things. In August, he pronounced the word “seven” for the first time.
The parrot could be ornery, though. When he grew tired of participating in repetitive scientific trials, Alex would demand to be returned to his cage. Once there, he’d slam the door. And when the other parrots in the lab mumbled during tests, Alex would order the birds to “talk better.” Pepperberg said he showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year old child and the brain of a typical 5 year old.
Pepperberg’s work with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry. Her study of avian intelligence also helped other scientists create therapies to treat children with learning disabilities.
One of the most famous African grey parrots in history, Alex was featured in print and broadcast media across the globe and on numerous science programs for the BBC, the Discovery channel and PBS. He was also the main subject of Pepperberg’s 1999 book, “The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots.”