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Education Science

Alex the African Grey Parrot Dies 242

Posted by kdawson
from the teaching-us-how-to-communicate dept.
grrlscientist writes "Yesterday, I received the devastating news that Alex the African Grey parrot, who was both a study subject and colleague to Irene Pepperberg, died unexpectedly at 31 years of age. 'Even though Alex was a research animal, he was much more than that. This species of parrot generally lives to be 50-60 years old, so Alex was only middle-aged when he died. According to some reports I have read, it is possible that Alex might have succumbed to Aspergillosis, a fungal infection of the lungs that he has battled in the past. However, the cause of death will not be known until after a necropsy has been completed... Alex's veterinarian is returning from vacation to personally conduct this necrospy.'"
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Alex the African Grey Parrot Dies

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  • Cue the... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:18PM (#20530521)
    Anyone who makes a comment about pining for the fjords gets a slap.
    • by zeromorph (1009305) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:42PM (#20530735)

      Ok no jokes, but did we get any last words [wikiquote.org] to quote then?

      • Re:Cue the... (Score:5, Informative)

        by ScrappyLaptop (733753) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @06:26PM (#20532083)
        Alex, what shape?

        "Four...corner"

        Alex, what color?

        (slowly) "Browwwn"

        Climb in, Alex (closes lid).

        He was going mad years ago and it made me sad to see him. When I first learned of Alex, he had just begun to be displayed for the media and he looked great. A few years down the road, after he (and his handler) had become media darlings, he had plucked every feather he could. Among parrots, isn't that a sign that things just aren't right?

        • Re:Cue the... (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Rei (128717) on Monday September 10, 2007 @01:42AM (#20535099) Homepage
          Well... it has more significance with some species than others. Greys are notorious for feather plucking. It's not a good sign, but greys can develop it even out of habit. Now, if you see an amazon that's all plucked, that means that something is seriously not right.

          Reading about this broke my heart. As a parrot owner myself, you hope that your bird outlives you. And yet, in some ways, they're just so delicate. You can't take a nap next to your parrot because you might roll onto it. You have to keep their wings clipped, or they might fly into a ceiling fan, or a burner, or escape (which in most places is a death sentence due to hawks, inclement weather, etc). You have to be very careful when using teflon, because the fumes from overheating teflon are very poisonous to parrots. You have to be careful about smoke of all kinds, because they tend to perch high and are sensitive to smoke (all birds are sensitive to bad air due to their highly efficient lungs -- hence a "canary in a coal mine"). You can't give them caffine, chocolate, avocado, and all sorts of other things. And on and on. I once read about a person who had raised an African Grey for a decade, and got it a mate. After a long time, they finally bred, and at long last, the chicks hatched. He was so happy for them, and wanted them to keep their strength up, so he picked them an avocado off his tree. Didn't know they were poisonous to parrots. Came back an hour later, and the whole family was dying.

          It's so easy to grow attached to a parrot as you would a child. You know, when you have a dog or a cat, they have their own world. You love them, but they're a different species, and they never really attempt to blur the line. A dog happily sticks its head in a bowl of dog food, runs around with a wagging tail, sniffs other dogs, and in general has its own little world. Parrots tend to live in your world. Mal, my amazon (named after Mal from Firefly), takes part in our life. He goes with us when we go outside, and even on the plane when we travel cross country (he's small enough to take as carry-on). He eats off our plates, the same food we eat, every meal (we're vegetarians; our diet is very similar to his natural diet). You don't "pet" him -- if he wants to be scratched, he'll let you, but he's just as likely to want to "scratch" (preen) you back. . It's a mutual social relationship, not a relationship where you only give. He goes to the bathroom on command (although he still has the occasional accident). He asks for up when he wants it ("I want up"). He invented a tradition of kissing before meals when he's really happy (rather than walk straight to the food, he walks over to us and says "Kiss!" and then kisses us). When he does something wrong that we've taught him is wrong, he often tries to hide it, just like a little kid. He solves puzzles better than children his age -- seriously. At just six months old, he figured how to get at an inaccessible treat ball by grabbing it by its support rope, hauling the rope to a safe spot, and wrapping it in place so it would stay while he ate. He can take apart wooden clothespins in less than 15 seconds, unbutton the clasps on my shirts, and once even removed the hinge pin to take apart a kitchen magnet (took us a half hour to get it back together -- we only gave it to him because we didn't see a way *we* could have taken it apart). He even addresses us by name -- I kid you not. I'm "Kareh" (Karen), and my partner is "Elay" (Elaine). If I'm fixing dinner, and he's getting impatient, I'll invariably hear, "Kareh! I want up!" If the wrong person tries to pick him up, he gets angry.

          Yet, he's just a year and a half old. Like a Grey, he should live to be 50-60.

          When something knows your name, it's hard not to see them as a family member... I really feel for Dr. Pepperberg and her staff right now.
  • Uhm... (Score:4, Funny)

    by BlueParrot (965239) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:18PM (#20530525)
    Ok... *still trying to figure out how this is newsworthy* I know, I know.. I'm new here...
    • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Funny)

      by QMalcolm (1094433) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:27PM (#20530575)
      Newsworthy? Colored parrots are going down. Dude, you're next!
      • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Funny)

        by HTTP Error 403 403.9 (628865) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @04:04PM (#20530899)
        Hopefully there was any fowl play involved.
        • I dunno... the fact that Luciano Pavarrotti used to be a ventriloquist is a strange coincidence, don't you think?
          • by Rei (128717)
            All of these dumb, joking comments make me really sad to read. Don't any of you feel sorry for Dr. Pepperberg and her staff?
            • by Schemat1c (464768)

              All of these dumb, joking comments make me really sad to read. Don't any of you feel sorry for Dr. Pepperberg and her staff?
              Yeah, it's so sad. And in other news some brown people [iraqbodycount.org] died today.
              • by Rei (128717)
                And that changes the fact that this is sad news how?
      • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

        by User 956 (568564)
        Newsworthy? Colored parrots are going down.

        Indeed, but are we talking about African, or European parrots?
      • Check out Frostee [videosift.com] who can dance to Creedance Clearwater song. Now, that's neat to see him go down and boogey. :D
      • by SeaFox (739806)

        Newsworthy? Colored parrots are going down. Dude, you're next!


        Everyone calm down. This poster is incorrect, it was a grey parrot that died. Check TFA, that bird is not colorful at all. So I think we're safe for now.
    • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Funny)

      by Rebelgecko (893016) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:28PM (#20530589)

      by BlueParrot (965239) on Sunday September 09, @12:18PM (#20530525)
      Ok... *still trying to figure out how this is newsworthy* I know, I know.. I'm new here...
      As one of his fellow parrots, you should be very familiar with Alex [wikipedia.org]. You should not let minor differences such as the color of your feathers get in the way of appreciating the scientific contributions of another parrot. Be tolerant of different-colored parrots, it's what Alex would have wanted.
      • > Be tolerant of different-colored parrots, it's what Alex would have wanted.

        Sad. I didn't know colors mattered, too.
        I thought all the fuss was about african vs. european ones.
    • Surveying the responses while in the ~10 range, the news value of this story seems related to the "Dead Parrot Sketch".
    • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Informative)

      by MBCook (132727) <foobarsoft@foobarsoft.com> on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:30PM (#20530613) Homepage

      You must not know much about this. Alex was an incredible bird. I've seen him on TV a couple of times. Many birds can repeat things. Some might even be able to associate (say specifically ask for food).

      Alex, though hard training and probably natural ability was far beyond that. He knew tons of words. He could answer simple questions and interpret human language. I remember seeing videos of them giving him a little toy car and asking him what it was, to which he responded "truck" (close enough). He did this with a couple of objects. They could ask him what color an object was and he could tell you.

      Check out the Wikipedia [wikipedia.org] article on him.

      This is news, like Washoe dying would be news (is Washoe still alive?)

      • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Informative)

        by Gorath99 (746654) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:59PM (#20530863)
        Also, Alex has been covered by Slashdot before. Here's a previous Slashdot article about the fact that he may have grasped the concept of zero [slashdot.org].

        I'm also pretty sure that one of the releases of Parrot (the perl6 VM) was named after him [slashdot.org]. If that doesn't make his death "News for Nerds", then I don't know what does.
      • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jafiwam (310805) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @05:02PM (#20531383) Homepage Journal
        You missed "spontaneously offering up other little details in conversation" like he was interested in, and wanted to talk about the subject. I am sure it's on Youtube somewhere, the one when he's eating corn and they have a conversation about it.

        And, making generalizations that far surpassed what some of the top dolphins have done, and what we are barely doing with chimps now.

        Heck, I have met people in bars with less cognitive awareness than this bird.
        • Re:Uhm... (Score:5, Funny)

          by mblase (200735) on Monday September 10, 2007 @08:04AM (#20536859)
          You missed "spontaneously offering up other little details in conversation" like he was interested in, and wanted to talk about the subject. I am sure it's on Youtube somewhere, the one when he's eating corn and they have a conversation about it.


          "Alex, would you like some corn?"
          *squawk* "Why do you want to talk about some corn?"
          "Well, we could talk about something else."
          *squawk* "Does it please you to believe we could talk about something else?"
      • by sco08y (615665)
        He could answer simple questions and interpret human language.

        From what I've heard, he made prelearned sounds in response to certain shapes or sounds. That's nothing like answering any kind of question or interpreting any language, let alone human language.

        Human language is a unique feat of evolution and it's not arrogant to say so, it's simple fact. Our trying to find it in other species would be the same as a bunch of giraffe scientists looking at a human and saying "wow, he stretched his neck a whole qua
        • Read the book, or at least some reviews of it, before you make such wrong-headed assumptions based on "what you've heard."
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by TapeCutter (624760)
          "From what I have heard" some slashdotter's think they know more about things they have never heard of than the actual scientists who have spent decades studying the subject. That's nothing like science, it's just the parroting of ancient man/beast concepts.

          As the owner of many large parrots and dogs over the last 40yrs, I can attest to the fact that both species understand certain words, phrases and gestures to the point that they can comunicate what they desire. Of course the owner also needs a modicum
        • by Rei (128717)
          So, would you say that learning to address people by their names is "prelearning sounds in response to certain shapes or sounds"? Because that's why my parrot has done. He asks for specific people by name. And isn't happy if the wrong person responds.

          How often do you think he heard the phrase, "Karen -- I want up!" in my house? Do you think that's a phrase that my partner and I use with each other? No -- he first learned the command "up" (which we'd give to him), then learned that saying "I want apple"
    • Ok... *still trying to figure out how this is newsworthy* I know, I know.. I'm new here...
      They're just providing the setup so everyone can make ex-parrot jokes. This is to nerds as laser pointers are to cats.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by tsjaikdus (940791)
      I remember him from this article (had to buy it on paper, no internet that I was aware of then) http://www.sciamdigital.com/index.cfm?fa=Products. ViewIssuePreview&ARTICLEID_CHAR=5FB5779F-4127-45C5 -9197-183F52218F0 [sciamdigital.com]
    • by SKPhoton (683703)
      His head fell off. He was pretty old...
  • by the_womble (580291) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:25PM (#20530565) Homepage Journal
    And have they tried putting 50,000 volts through it?
  • Profit? (Score:3, Funny)

    by SavedLinuXgeeK (769306) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:25PM (#20530569) Homepage
    I wonder if anyone has tried to sell him to a blind kid...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by meringuoid (568297)
      1: Obtain dead parrot
      2: ???
      3: Profit!

      2 probably involves some sort of comedy routine, rather than any attempt to sell the thing, though.

  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:39PM (#20530711) Homepage Journal
    albeit probably unintentionally: As you know, I have spent my life researching, breeding and living with birds,

    This coming from someone who calls themselves grrrlscientist. You could probably make some videos to pay for your research.....
  • Alex was cool. (Score:5, Informative)

    by FlatCatInASlatVat (828700) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:43PM (#20530745)
    I met him once. He really was a remarkable bird and could use language for communication, not just mimicry. He would answer all sorts of question about objects that you showed him. Some errors, of course, but correct responses way above chance. Together with all the reports over the last few years about tool-making and using in crows, it makes you have a lot more respect for birds. Makes me think of watching crows play and tumble on a strong, turbulent wind or pelican "surf" the air just in front of a nice clean wave. Awesome.
    • by blakestah (91866)
      Alex used words, but not language.

      Language use requires word polymorphisms, grammar, and verbs.

      Noted linguists such as Noam Chomsky did not feel that Alex's use of the 100 english words Alex knew constituted a true language.

      An average college graduate in the USA has a vocabulary of 100,000 words.

      Still, Alex displayed remarkable intelligence for a bird.

      • Alex used words, but not language.

        Language use requires word polymorphisms, grammar, and verbs.

        Noted linguists such as Noam Chomsky did not feel that Alex's use of the 100 english words Alex knew constituted a true language.

        An average college graduate in the USA has a vocabulary of 100,000 words.

        Still, Alex displayed remarkable intelligence for a bird.


        The average American high school graduate knows only 4 words. Yes. No. Beer. fuck. The other 99,996 are all just synonyms for those 4 they pick up in college.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by smaddox (928261)
        Take a look at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pepperberg03/peppe rberg_index.html [edge.org].

        The last 4 paragraphs read thusly:

        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, p
  • A new beginning... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by machinelou (1119861) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:46PM (#20530779)
    Although this animal could do some fairly impressive things, I often felt she (Dr. Pepperberg) and her colleagues made too much of it. The constellation of things referred to by English speakers as "Language" is far too broad to be especially meaningful when applied to the behavior of a parrot. The behaviors of "speaking" and "listening" are better described as falling along a continuum as opposed to a skill that one either has or not.
    And this is fairly important news because, from what I understand, most Alex's success has not been replicated with other birds. Hopefully this will prompt her and/or others to better describe the conditions under which animals (and humans) come to do things we refer to as language as opposed to simply cataloging differences between species which are all too easy to find.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Lemmy Caution (8378)
      What I hope is that findings like those related to Alex, as well as those involving learned and socially communicated non-human primate behavior, gets us farther and farther away from crude nature-vs-nurture models and toward theories based on brains as adaptive, re-organizing dynamical systems. It is shocking how much naive innatism and folk-modularity is getting promulgated in the popular media nowadays.
  • by E++99 (880734) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:50PM (#20530799) Homepage
    Dead Parrot Sketch

    The cast:

    MR. PRALINE
    John Cleese
    SHOP OWNER
    Michael Palin

    The sketch:

    A customer enters a pet shop.

    Mr. Praline: 'Ello, I wish to register a complaint.

    (The owner does not respond.)

    Mr. Praline: 'Ello, Miss?

    Owner: What do you mean "miss"?

    Mr. Praline: I'm sorry, I have a cold. I wish to make a complaint!

    Owner: We're closin' for lunch.

    Mr. Praline: Never mind that, my lad. I wish to complain about this parrot what I purchased not half an hour ago from this very boutique.

    Owner: Oh yes, the, uh, the Norwegian Blue...What's,uh...What's wrong with it?

    Mr. Praline: I'll tell you what's wrong with it, my lad. 'E's dead, that's what's wrong with it!

    Owner: No, no, 'e's uh,...he's resting.

    Mr. Praline: Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.

    Owner: No no he's not dead, he's, he's restin'! Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, idn'it, ay? Beautiful plumage!

    Mr. Praline: The plumage don't enter into it. It's stone dead.

    Owner: Nononono, no, no! 'E's resting!

    Mr. Praline: All right then, if he's restin', I'll wake him up! (shouting at the cage) 'Ello, Mister Polly Parrot! I've got a lovely fresh cuttle fish for you if you
    show...

    (owner hits the cage)

    Owner: There, he moved!

    Mr. Praline: No, he didn't, that was you hitting the cage!

    Owner: I never!!

    Mr. Praline: Yes, you did!

    Owner: I never, never did anything...

    Mr. Praline: (yelling and hitting the cage repeatedly) 'ELLO POLLY!!!!! Testing! Testing! Testing! Testing! This is your nine o'clock alarm call!

    (Takes parrot out of the cage and thumps its head on the counter. Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor.)

    Mr. Praline: Now that's what I call a dead parrot.

    Owner: No, no.....No, 'e's stunned!

    Mr. Praline: STUNNED?!?

    Owner: Yeah! You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up! Norwegian Blues stun easily, major.

    Mr. Praline: Um...now look...now look, mate, I've definitely 'ad enough of this. That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not 'alf an hour
    ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein' tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.

    Owner: Well, he's...he's, ah...probably pining for the fjords.

    Mr. Praline: PININ' for the FJORDS?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that?, look, why did he fall flat on his back the moment I got 'im home?

    Owner: The Norwegian Blue prefers keepin' on it's b
  • by GBC (981160) * on Sunday September 09, 2007 @03:52PM (#20530819)
    Finally, I can quote the "Dead Parrot Sketch" and not be off-topic!

    Luckily for me, Alex died young - I don't know if I could have held out for another 19-29 years...

  • by unity100 (970058) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @04:04PM (#20530905) Homepage Journal
    this parrot was smarter and more intelligent than a certain percentage of /.ers. this is that kind of news.

    no really, he was really, really overly smart. major geek stuff.
  • by fishthegeek (943099) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @04:13PM (#20530977) Journal
    Me an Me shipmates extend to ye oer sympathies. Tis tuf to looz a parrot, I wuldnt be da same witout mine. Arrrrrggghhhh.
    May he rest in Davy Jones Locker in peace. Arrrgghhhh!!!!!

  • by Anonymous Coward
    He was delicious!
  • how sad (Score:4, Funny)

    by Rutulian (171771) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @04:26PM (#20531057)
    I met Alex four years ago at Brandeis. He tried to mate with my arm... :(
    • >He tried to mate with my arm...

      This is slashdot. Everybody here uses own arm to try to "mate".

      Nevermind, read TFA and TFcomments, some interesting story about nuts, really.
    • You probably have one fine looking arm.
  • A Parrot is a bird, a Penguin is a bird, the mascot of Linux is Tux the Penguin. See? Totally relevant.
  • after reading the news that the Mac community prevented the coup, and now you are bringing me down with a news that whatever parrot died. reading the slashdot is becoming a roller-coaster ride.
  • Birds live long (Score:2, Interesting)

    by fishbowl (7759)
    My local pet store has a parrot that was born in 1914. He seems healthy and spry (and he bites).

    obHomer: Mmmmmm.... peppered bird...
  • by giminy (94188)
    Isn't Apergillis how the folks in the movie Primer discovered what their device did?

    • I saw that movie on IFC a while back. If anybody made a time machine, it would probably be by some nerdy guys in a garage somewhere. No typical Hollywood special effects: flashing lights and machines that go bing! It felt more like a documentary than a movie. Very interesting.
  • by MarkWatson (189759) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @06:21PM (#20532019) Homepage
    I have a Meyers Parrot named Brady (picture: http://flickr.com/photos/mark_watson/392128570/ [flickr.com]) who is about 6 years old. When Brady was a baby, I used to show him videos on my computer, not of Alex, but of the Parrot at MIT who used a symbolic language. Brady was fairly much fascinated by the videos, and I showed them to him many times.

    Although parrots have small neocortexes, they are clever little creatures. Brady has good analytic (puzzle solving) abilities, but his long term memory seems to be limited to things that he has been exposed to many times - this is just my own opinion, not backed up by any scientific research.

    I work at home and can frequently give our parrot attention during the day - please don't even consider getting a parrot unless either your family can give it frequent attention and play time every day, or get a mated pair that can keep each other company. We find that we can't really leave rady in a room by himself, so we move him to where ever we are in the house, or better yet, just let him run/fly around (also known as running amuck :-)

    A problem with parrots is that they do bite - I get a good bite every month or two, but I try to not let it hurt my feelings. I could probably avoid most bites by not handling Brady when I know that he is pissed off, but why bother.
    • Another cool thing about parrots: being birds, they fly :-)

      Brady probably reaches speeds well over 30 miles an hour flying around our house, but he avoids crashes, knows about windows, etc. I am careful to let him know if I am going to walk through a doorway while he is flying to avoid any unfortunte ramifications of the conservation of momentum and the pauli exclusion principle :-)

      Baby birds mess up on the flying thing a lot, but it must be like learning to ride a bicycle - once you have it down, you have
    • by epine (68316)

      If humans were birds, we would die in the shell. With our giant noggins we'd be completely unable to weild the egg tooth to crack out of our shell. Birds have a lot more pressure to develop cognitive capacity without also developing cognitive bulk. It's hardly surprising that birds accomplish more with less.

      I personally regard Alex as a lot more interesting and significant than any Apple product. However, the topic is hardly worthy of discussion. It could work as a honeypot. -1 for everyone who chimes
  • I ate what? Well, how would I know it was a talking parrot?

  • Banerry (Score:4, Interesting)

    by belg4mit (152620) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @07:47PM (#20532671) Homepage
    I still remember the bit on 3-2-1 Contact where they featured Alex.
    The coolest bit was that he invented a word for an apple (banerry)
    based on its similarities in color and taste to fruits he knew.
  • ...he's pining for the fjords!
  • by weeboo0104 (644849) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @10:07PM (#20533605) Journal
    I got the news from another member of my bird club who knew that Dr. Irene Pepperberg did a demonstration with myself and my Grey for our club a few years ago.

    Irene's research was instrumental in helping understand the cognitive ability of animals (ironicly, her research started out as trying to help brain damaged humans rebuild cognitive ability through Model/Rival training).

    Irene has a big heart and I know she must be crushed from this loss.
    If you want to support her research with her 3 other birds (lab space and research assistants aren't free), please donate a check made payable to:

    The Alex Foundation MS/062
    Department of Psychology
    Brandeis University
    415 South Street
    Waltham, MA 02454
    Attn: Alex Memorial

    The Alex Foundation [alexfoundation.org] is a 503c not-for-profit organization.

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