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September 12, 2007

the enigma of alex, the avian learning experiment

kaspar hauser.jpg [image source: Bruno S. as Kaspar Hauser in Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), dir. Werner Herzog, 1974] The death has been announced in Massachusetts of Alex, the world's most famous African Grey parrot. Hatched in the last year of the Gerald Ford presidency, Alex was 31 years old at the time of his passing on the night of 7-8 September 2007.

The African Grey (Psittacus erithacus), a common pet species today, has a mixture of dark and light grey, black and white feathers on its head and body, with a striking maroon or reddish tail plumage. Zygodactylic, like all parrots, it has four toes per foot, two on the front and two on the back. It enjoys feeding on nuts, fruit and leaves.

In the case of the African Grey, there is a long history of human-parrot interaction. Experts believe that they were probably kept as pets both by the ancient Egyptians and by the ancient Greeks. Aristocratic Romans also owned parrots as status symbols and they taught their pets to pronounce select Latin words. (It seems to be typical that parrots in captivity speak the language of their captors and that they express faithful support for their owners' opinions and for the social status quo of the period and the place in which they find themselves.)

Parrots became fashionable in Europe during the Renaissance and Reformation. (Portuguese mariners would keep African Greys as companions during the long voyages of plunder which they made back and forth to Africa.) King Henry VIII, who had seven wives, also had an African Grey parrot. Perhaps knowing the King's fondness for his pet, the poet John Skelton, appointed King's Orator in 1512, wrote an anti-Wolseyian satire called Speke, Parrot (ca. 1521). The work purports to record the rambling, pugnacious thoughts of a parrot at court. At the start of the poem, the "speaker" wisely declares its undying loyalty to "King Henry VIII, our royal king" and to "Katherine incomparable".

When the King fell into the Thames, the bird was reputed to have called out (perhaps to the dismay of certain courtiers), "Help, I am drowning!" The association between British royalty and the African Grey was continued, at least down into the reign of Queen Victoria, whose Coco could sing a version of "God Save the Queen".

However, the place of these birds in humanity's annals pales before Alex's. Thus, as I write these words on the morning after General David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker completed their reports to Congress on the progress of the war in Iraq, Alex's story ranks as the "most emailed" story in the current edition of the New York Times. [PS Later in the day, Alex was displaced from first place by two stories, one about socializing websites for older people and the other about a man's search for "coffee's holy grail".]

Alex's name originated as an acronym: "A.L.EX.", standing for "Avian Learning EXperiment". Purchased in a pet store, he worked for several decades with Professor Irene Pepperberg, first in Arizona and then in the Boston area.

Alex had a vocabulary of some 150 English words, could distinguish between "over" and "under", and had seemed to be able to appreciate the concept "four" because he was able, in the words of the New York Times, to transfer "the concept of four blue balls of wool on a tray to four notes from a piano." Professor Pepperberg was also training Alex to recognize the Arabic numeral "4" as a representation of the "four"-concept. Further, the Times reports, the bird had a repertoire of "one-liners from hanging around the lab, like 'calm down' and 'good morning.' He could express frustration, or apparent boredom." (In 2005 Alex apparently mastered the concept of zero.)

African Greys are highly social creatures, but they are not necessarily universally gregarious with humans. They tend to bond tightly with their keeper and to ignore or appear relatively indifferent to other people. Julie Rack wrote that: "When Dr. Pepperberg left Alex with a vet for treatment, Alex vocalised the words 'Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back.'"

Professor Pepperberg's extensive scientific studies of Alex's brain and its endeavours were collected in her The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots (Harvard UP, 1999).

Much became Alex in this world, but nothing so much as his leaving of it. Last week he and Prof. Pepperberg had been studying compound and hard-to-pronounce words. In the past, when the Professor said goodnight to her feathered friend, he would very often reply: "Bye. I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow."* However, on Thursday, when he went into his cage for the last time, Alex looked at her and said: "You be good. I love you." She responded: "I love you, too." He said: "You'll be in tomorrow?", and, as if parrotting his words, she responded: "Yes, I'll be in tomorrow."

Alex had seemed to be in good health. But he was found dead in his cage the next morning, a Friday, apparently of natural causes. A necropsy of the body has revealed no discernible cause of death. Few relationships between humans and other creatures can have been as close and productive as this one, and our inevitable sadness over Alex's death is tempered by the thought that no other experimental partnership can, after many years, have ended so peacefully with the right words uttered on both sides.

Professor Pepperburg will continue her work with two more African Greys, Griffin and Arthur. Those who wish to make donations in support of her research may do so at the Alex Foundation.

Professor Pepperberg's research on Alex is controversial in some quarters (what genuinely path-breaking research is not controversial?). Critics had asserted, for example, that his "alleged use of language" was "merely operant conditioning".

But if there is any cause for regret in this story (and what life or narrative can end without regrets?), then it must lie in the fact that Alex was never able to develop his linguistic capacities in English to the point where he could explain in our terms what it felt like to be a parrot or, even more profoundly, who he, Alex, really, deep-down was. Of the same failing, of course, many humans have been equally guilty.

Doubtless over time Alex gave us many signals in his own avian semiotic system pointing towards answers to these questions. But, enamoured of our own linguistic processes and convinced of their absolute superiority, we have been disinclined, or unable, to read these answers satisfactorily. And, finally, for all his heroic efforts at human socialization, Alex was not yet ready to speak about these mysteries in terms which we could appreciate. He died, as we have noted, at the "compound and hard-to-pronounce words" stage. It is difficult, perhaps it is unbearable, to be honest with ourselves about the discontents as well as the benefits of existence within a culture. But, if we are, I believe many will admit it was at the very same stage, long ago in each life, that a small but invaluable "something" (if I may be forgiven the expression) died too.

Posted by njenkins at September 12, 2007 05:27 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins