I first heard about Alex, the African Grey Parrot, a couple years ago. Jason heard an article about him and his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, on NPR. The stuff they said Alex could do – counting, item recognition, etc – was amazing. I’m not a big animal or pet person, nor a big science person, but I recognized that the sorts of things Alex could do were out of the ordinary, and a great breakthrough in the study of communication and animal behavior. I stored the information away, and didn’t think about it again until this past fall, when Jason caught another NPR article talking about Alex’s death. Of course, Alex died the year before, in September of 2007, but I imagine the article came out because of the publication of this book, a memoir of sorts about Irene and Alex’s time together.
By the time Alex died, at age 31 and about 20 years prematurely, he had the communication skills of a toddler. He knew a bunch of words; recognized color, matter, shape, smaller/bigger, and same/different; knew numbers and had a rudimentary understanding of zero; understood some phonemes and was learning to put them together to form words; created his own words and combination words; and much more. All of his learnings were chronicled in this book, as well as his attitude through the years. He was like a toddler…a spoiled, bratty toddler, but they weren’t so concerned with discipline, of course. It was fun to hear stories.
There are a ton of stories in this book about Alex, but I’m only going to relate two of the more amazing things he did. The first involves the word “Banerry.” Irene and other trainers were trying to get Alex to use the word “apple.” They said it slowly and carefully – “Ap-ple.” But Alex wouldn’t have it. He refused to say the word. Then one day, he looked at that apple and said, “Banerry.” The trainers tried to get him to change it, but the longer they said, “Ap-ple,” the more insistent he got. “Ban-erry,” he said, then “Ban-err-eeee.” He was teaching the trainers to say his word, which was a cross between a banana and a cherry, fruits he was familiar with and could already say.
Another story. They were working on phonemes. One of the things with having to prove everything scientifically is that the experiment has to be repeated many times to show the subject has actually learned the knowledge. Alex used to get bored, repeating the things he’d already shown he knew. Once, when Irene wanted him to identify phonemes, he refused, instead saying “Want a nut” each time she asked the question. He got more insistent when she told him no, and eventually popped out with “Want a nut. Nnn…uh…tuh.” He spelled that word out without ever being taught. That was really amazing.
The book was a very fun read. The stories were amazing; I was continually stunned. I loved hearing about all the things Alex could do, and Pepperberg doesn’t write in overly scientific terms, so I didn’t get bogged down in stuff I didn’t understand. When she related how Alex died, I cried. It was very sad. Her last night with him, he was perfectly normal, and the last thing he said to her, as every night, was “You be good. I love you,” and “You’ll be in tomorrow?” The book didn’t say if they ever figured out why he died two decades before his expected lifespan. Whatever the cause, not only was it a great loss to the scientific community, but a loss to everyone who knew Alex.