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Alex (parrot)

Alex (parrot)

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Alex was an African Grey Parrot
African Grey Parrot
The African Grey Parrot , also known as the Grey Parrot, is a medium-sized parrot found in the primary and secondary rainforest of West and Central Africa. Experts regard it as one of the most intelligent birds. They feed primarily on palm nuts, seeds, fruits, leafy matter, but have been observed...

 and the subject of a thirty-year (1977–2007) experiment by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg
Irene Pepperberg
Irene Maxine Pepperberg is a scientist noted for her studies in animal cognition, particularly in relation to parrots. She is an adjunct professor of psychology at Brandeis University and a lecturer at Harvard University...

, initially at the University of Arizona
University of Arizona
The University of Arizona is a land-grant and space-grant public institution of higher education and research located in Tucson, Arizona, United States. The University of Arizona was the first university in the state of Arizona, founded in 1885...

 and later at Harvard University
Harvard University
Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

 and Brandeis University
Brandeis University
Brandeis University is an American private research university with a liberal arts focus. It is located in the southwestern corner of Waltham, Massachusetts, nine miles west of Boston. The University has an enrollment of approximately 3,200 undergraduate and 2,100 graduate students. In 2011, it...

. Pepperberg bought Alex in a regular pet shop when he was about one year old. The name Alex is an acronym for Avian Language EXperiment, but Pepperberg later cited the name as meaning Avian Learning EXperiment to evoke further acceptance in her research field, a then touchy topic (explained in her book, Alex & Me). His successor was Griffin.

Before Pepperberg's work with Alex, it was widely believed in the scientific community that a large primate
A primate is a mammal of the order Primates , which contains prosimians and simians. Primates arose from ancestors that lived in the trees of tropical forests; many primate characteristics represent adaptations to life in this challenging three-dimensional environment...

 brain was needed to handle complex problems related to language and understanding and that birds were not considered to be intelligent as their only common use of communication was of mimicking and the repetition of sounds to interact with each other. However, 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 dolphin
Dolphins are marine mammals that are closely related to whales and porpoises. There are almost forty species of dolphin in 17 genera. They vary in size from and , up to and . They are found worldwide, mostly in the shallower seas of the continental shelves, and are carnivores, mostly eating...

s 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 bought Alex at a normal pet store near O'Hare Airport in Chicago while she was doing research at Purdue University. Alex had his wings clipped
Wing clipping
Wing clipping is the process of trimming a bird's primary flight feathers so that it is no longer fully flighted.-Technique:Wing clipping is usually performed by avian veterinarians, pet store employees, breeders, or the birds' owners themselves. It is generally carried out on pet birds,...

 when he was young, and therefore was never able to learn to fly.


Alex's training used a model/rival technique, where the student (Alex) observes trainers interacting. One of the trainers models the desired student behavior, and is seen by the student as a rival for the other trainer's attention. The trainer and model/rival exchange roles so the student can see that the process is interactive. During times when Pepperberg and an assistant were having a conversation and made mistakes, Alex would correct them.

This technique helped Pepperberg succeed with Alex where other scientists had failed in facilitating two-way communication with parrots. In later years, Alex sometimes assumed the role of one of Pepperberg's assistants by acting as the "model" and "rival" in helping to teach a fellow parrot in the lab. Alex sometimes practiced words when he was alone.


Pepperberg was conservative in her descriptions of Alex's accomplishments, not claiming that he could use "language" but instead saying that he used a two-way communications code. Listing Alex's accomplishments in 1999, Pepperberg said he could identify 50 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 passed increasingly more difficult tests measuring whether humans have achieved Piaget
Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget was a French-speaking Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called "genetic epistemology"....

's Substage 6 object permanence
Object permanence
Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched. It is acquired by human infants between 8 and 12 months of age via the process of logical induction to help them develop secondary schemes in their sensori-motor coordination...

. Alex showed surprise and anger when confronted with a nonexistent object or one different from what he had been led to believe was hidden during the tests.

Alex had a vocabulary of about 150 word
In language, a word is the smallest free form that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content . This contrasts with a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning but will not necessarily stand on its own...

s, 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. He could understand that a key
Key (lock)
A key is an instrument that is used to operate a lock. A typical key consists of two parts: the blade, which slides into the keyway of the lock and distinguishes between different keys, and the bow, which is left protruding so that torque can be applied by the user. The blade is usually intended to...

 was a key no matter what its size or color, and could figure out how the key was different from others. He asked what color he was, and learned "grey" after being told the answer six times.

Alex understood the turn-taking of communication and often the syntax used in language. He called an apple
The apple is the pomaceous fruit of the apple tree, species Malus domestica in the rose family . It is one of the most widely cultivated tree fruits, and the most widely known of the many members of genus Malus that are used by humans. Apple grow on small, deciduous trees that blossom in the spring...

 a "banerry", which Pepperberg thought to be a combination of "banana" and "cherry", two fruits he was more familiar with.

Alex could even add, to a limited extent, correctly giving the number of like objects on a tray. Pepperberg said that if he could not count, the data could be interpreted as his being able to quickly and accurately estimate the number of something, better than humans can. When he was tired of being tested, he would say “Wanna go back,” meaning he wanted to go back to his cage, and in general, he would request where he wanted to be taken by saying "Wanna go...", protest if he was taken to a different place, and sit quietly when taken to his preferred spot. He was not trained to say where he wanted to go, but picked it up from being asked where he'd like to be taken. If the researcher displayed annoyance, Alex tried to defuse 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 or otherwise displayed annoyance, before requesting the item again. When asked questions in the context of research testing, he gave the correct answer approximately 80% of the time.

Once, Alex was given several different colored blocks (two red, three blue, and four green—similar to the picture above). Pepperberg asked him, "What color three?" expecting him to say blue. However, as Alex had been asked this question before, he seemed to have become bored. He answered "five!" This kept occurring until Pepperberg said "Fine, what color five?" Alex replied "none". This suggests that parrots, like children, get bored. Sometimes, Alex purposely answered the questions wrong, despite knowing the correct answer.

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. Pepperberg was also training him to recognize the Arabic numeral "4" as "four". Alex also showed some comprehension of personal pronoun
Personal pronoun
Personal pronouns are pronouns used as substitutes for proper or common nouns. All known languages contain personal pronouns.- English personal pronouns :English in common use today has seven personal pronouns:*first-person singular...

s; he used different language when referring to himself or others, indicating a concept of "I" and "you".

In July 2005, Pepperberg reported that Alex understood the concept of zero
0 (number)
0 is both a numberand the numerical digit used to represent that number in numerals.It fulfills a central role in mathematics as the additive identity of the integers, real numbers, and many other algebraic structures. As a digit, 0 is used as a placeholder in place value systems...

. If asked the difference between two objects, he also answered that; but if there was no difference between the objects, he said “none", which meant that he understood the concept of nothing or zero. In July 2006, Pepperberg discovered that Alex's perception of optical illusion
Optical illusion
An optical illusion is characterized by visually perceived images that differ from objective reality. The information gathered by the eye is processed in the brain to give a perception that does not tally with a physical measurement of the stimulus source...

s was similar to human perception.

Pepperberg was training Alex to recognize English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

In a language or dialect, a phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances....

s, in the hope 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 died on September 6, 2007, at the age of 31. Alex's death came as a complete surprise; the average life span for African grey parrots is sixty years. He had appeared healthy the day before but 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.

The Alex Foundation posted the pathology results on October 4:
"Alex died quickly. He had a sudden, unexpected catastrophic event associated with arteriosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis refers to a stiffening of arteries.Arteriosclerosis is a general term describing any hardening of medium or large arteries It should not be confused with "arteriolosclerosis" or "atherosclerosis".Also known by the name "myoconditis" which is...

 ("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 (less than 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."

Alex's last words to Pepperberg were: "You be good. I love you."


Some in the scientific community are skeptical of Pepperberg's findings, pointing to Alex's communications as operant conditioning
Operant conditioning
Operant conditioning is a form of psychological learning during which an individual modifies the occurrence and form of its own behavior due to the association of the behavior with a stimulus...

. Critics point to the case of Clever Hans
Clever Hans
Clever Hans was an Orlov Trotter horse that was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks....

, a horse who could apparently count, but who was actually taking subtle cues from his trainer. An important difference from Clever Hans was that Alex talked to and performed for anyone involved in the project, including complete strangers. In another case, Nim Chimpsky
Nim Chimpsky
Nim Chimpsky was a chimpanzee who was the subject of an extended study of animal language acquisition at Columbia University, led by Herbert S. Terrace....

, a chimpanzee named after Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

, was thought to be using language, but there is some debate over whether he was simply imitating his teacher instead. Dr. Herbert Terrace, who had worked with Nim Chimpsky, says he thinks Alex performed by rote
Rote learning
Rote learning is a learning technique which focuses on memorization. The major practice involved in rote learning is learning by repetition by which students commit information to memory in a highly structured way. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the...

 rather than using language; he calls Alex's responses "a complex discriminative performance", adding that in every situation, "there is an external stimulus that guides his response."

Pop culture references

  • In Margaret Atwood
    Margaret Atwood
    Margaret Eleanor Atwood, is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honoured authors of fiction in recent history; she is a winner of the Arthur C...

    's novel Oryx and Crake
    Oryx and Crake
    Oryx and Crake is a novel by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Atwood has at times disputed the novel being science fiction, preferring to label it speculative fiction and "adventure romance" because it does not deal with 'things that have not been invented yet' and goes beyond the realism she...

    , Jimmy watches old DVD
    A DVD is an optical disc storage media format, invented and developed by Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic in 1995. DVDs offer higher storage capacity than Compact Discs while having the same dimensions....

    s of Alex performing. Alex's kenning
    A kenning is a type of literary trope, specifically circumlocution, in the form of a compound that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun. Kennings are strongly associated with Old Norse and later Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon poetry...

     "cork-nut" is referred to throughout the book.
  • Apple has developed a text-to-speech system called Alex.

See also

  • Animal language
    Animal language
    Animal language is the modeling of human language in non human animal systems. While the term is widely used, researchers agree that animal languages are not as complex or expressive as human language....

  • Talking bird
    Talking bird
    Talking birds are birds that can mimic human speech. Talking birds have varying degrees of intelligence and communication capabilities: some, like the crow, a highly intelligent bird, are only able to mimic a few words and phrases, whilst some budgerigars have been observed to have a vocabulary of...

  • Talking animal
    Talking animal
    A talking animal or speaking animal refers to any form of non-human animal which can produce sounds resembling those of a human language. Many species or groups of animals have developed forms of Animal Communication Systems which to some appear to be a non-verbal language...

Talking animals
  • Batyr (Elephant)
    Batyr was an Asian elephant claimed to be able to use a large amount of meaningful human speech. Living in a zoo in Kazakhstan, Batyr was reported as having a vocabulary of more than 20 phrases....

  • N'kisi
    N'kisi is an African Grey Parrot who is thought to exhibit advanced English usage skills and other abilities.-Accomplishments:According to news reports and websites, as of January 2004 N'kisi had a vocabulary of about 950 words and used them in context, frequently in complete sentences, had...

  • Koko (gorilla)
    Koko (gorilla)
    Koko is a female western lowland gorilla who, according to Francine "Penny" Patterson, is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language, and understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English....

  • Kosik
    Kosik is a male Asian elephant in the Everland theme park in Yongin, South Korea, born 1990. He made headlines in September 2006 when it was discovered he could imitate the Korean words for "yes" , "no" , "sit" , "lie down" , and four other words...

  • Washoe (chimpanzee)
    Washoe (chimpanzee)
    Washoe was a chimpanzee who was the first non-human to learn to communicate using American Sign Language, as part of a research experiment on animal language acquisition....

External links