For those of you "bird brains" out there, you will be saddened to learn that
Alex the famous African Grey who has been the main subject of research for
30 years by Dr. Irene Pepperberg (currently at Brandeis) has died.
Hopefully by tomorrow the necropsy will indicate the cause. He was "only"
31, and for a grey that's about like saying that a human was "only" 31 when
he died. If you aren't familiar with Dr. Pepperberg's research, her studies
were intended to revolve around inter-species communication, but her great
success with Alex (and now two other greys, Griffin and Wart) has also been
adapted to assisting with teaching autistic children better communication

Following is part of an interview with Dr. Pepperberg where she relates one
of my favorite stories about Alex.


There are some things that the birds do that, colloquially speaking, "just
blow us away." We were training Alex to sound out phonemes, not because we
want him to read as humans do, but we want to see if he understands that his
labels are made up of sounds that can be combined in different ways to make
up new words; that is, to demonstrate evidence for segmentation. He babbles
at dusk, producing strings like "green, cheen, bean, keen", so we have some
evidence for this behavior, but we need more solid data.

Thus we are trying to get him to sound out refrigerator letters, the same
way one would train children on phonics. We were doing demos at the Media
Lab for our corporate sponsors; we had a very small amount of time scheduled
and the visitors wanted to see Alex work. So we put a number of differently
colored letters on the tray that we use, put the tray in front of Alex, and
asked, "Alex, what sound is blue?" He answers, "Ssss." The blue letter was
an "s", so we say "Good birdie" and he replies, "Want a nut."

Well, I don't want him sitting there using our limited amount of time to eat
a nut, so I tell him to wait, and I ask, "What sound is green?" Alex
answers, "Ssshh." He's right, it's "sh," and we go through the routine
again: "Good parrot." "Want a nut." "Alex, wait. What sound is orange?"
"ch." "Good bird!" "Want a nut." We're going on and on and Alex is clearly
getting more and more frustrated. He finally gets very slitty-eyed and he
looks at me and states, "Want a nut. Nnn, uh, tuh."

Not only could you imagine him thinking, "Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it
for you?" but the point was that he had leaped over where we were and had
begun sounding out the letters of the words for us. This was in a sense his
way of saying to us, "I know where you're headed! Let's get on with it,"
which gave us the feeling that we were on the right track with what we were
doing. These kinds of things don't happen in the lab on a daily basis, but
when they do, they make you realize there's a lot more going on inside these
little walnut-sized brains than you might at first imagine.


For more information about Dr. Pepperberg's research, Alex and the other two
African Greys, Griffin and Wart (Arthur), visit