An acquaintance of mine died last week, and I just found out about it. Alex, Irene Pepperberg’s African grey parrot, is dead at the age of 31. There’s no particular cause that has been identified for his death, and he was pretty much just approaching middle age for an African grey. Alex is best known for being the primary subject in Pepperberg’s research on animal cognition, and especially non-human cognitive psychology, explored through Alex’s ability to communicate through spoken English.
Diane and I met Alex on a visit to Pepperberg’s lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson back in the spring of 1993. We were applying to various programs for grad school, and Pepperberg was one of the people we were talking with concerning her research. We got to spend several hours in the lab over a few days we spent on campus, and we got to meet Alex.
As the first article linked says, Alex had a predisposition to like tall males. Irene, Diane, and I were sitting around a table that Alex was on, and Alex walked over to where I was sitting and solicited head-rubbing. We had had two cockatiels for several years, and the same sort of behavioral cues were evident in Alex. Alex, though, was not allowed non-verbal solicitation; if he wanted head-rubbing, he was supposed to ask. So several times as we talked, Irene would tell Alex that he needed to ask, and several times she told me not to do the head-rubbing that Alex was obviously asking for non-verbally. I was just used to being bossed around by parrots, so it was an effort to just keep my hands under the table.
We also got to see regular research sessions go on, and to see Pepperberg do some interrogation of Alex, as well as Alex serving as a rival in the training of a new parrot in the lab.
We’ve seen Irene Pepperberg at a variety of conferences since then, but we didn’t have the chance to interact with Alex after our interviews in 1993. Alex, though, left not just a personal impression on us and others that he met over the years, but has raised awareness of the extent of non-human cognition. He has a commendable legacy in the scientific literature, a record that will be an enduring memorial to a remarkable life. Diane and I send Irene our condolences; this has to hurt a lot.