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He's Pinin' For The Fjords
September 10, 2007 5:59 AM   Subscribe

Alex, the African Gray parrot who "spoke" over 100 words, has passed away. y2karl introduced MetaFilter to Alex a few years ago. Alex had been the subject of Dr. Irene Pepperberg's research for nearly 20 years. His ability to communicate with people using an extensive English vocabulary demonstrated a level of intelligence previously unthought of in birds, but critics include no less than Noam Chomsky himself. Here's a 1999 NYT article about Alex if you have never heard of this incredible bird, and a video of another gray parrot demonstrating its own talents.
posted by briank (55 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Goodbye, feathered friend.
posted by greatgefilte at 6:09 AM on September 10, 2007


It seems that Cheerios cereal was a favorite treat among the parrots in the lab. At a certain point, someone went to a new local health food store, and brought back some healthy organic O-shaped whole-grain cereal. Alex tried a mouthful, spit it out, looked at the provider, and said, very distinctly:

"Wood."


Put me in the deeply (like, Marianas) skeptical camp where actual aberrant intelligence goes, but a charming parrot is a charming parrot.
posted by cortex at 6:16 AM on September 10, 2007 [4 favorites]


That last link is awesome!!!

Spaceship and evil were great!

Hahahaha!
posted by lazaruslong at 6:25 AM on September 10, 2007


Oh man. They trained the parrot how to yawn, too. That's just freaky. Wow, that last video was great.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:26 AM on September 10, 2007


.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:29 AM on September 10, 2007


He's not dead, he's resting after a long squawk.
posted by Gungho at 6:47 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


That video was great, thanks!
posted by m0nm0n at 6:50 AM on September 10, 2007


Beautiful plumage though
posted by coachfortner at 6:58 AM on September 10, 2007


Aww ... *sniffle*
posted by Quietgal at 7:12 AM on September 10, 2007


Well, this is sad news.
posted by y2karl at 7:26 AM on September 10, 2007


Sad. I used to visit her lab a lot (boyfriend worked in it in college). Let's all have some hot peppers and nuts to remember him by!
posted by R343L at 7:32 AM on September 10, 2007


RIP, Alex.

That trainer in the video was awfully stingy with the treats. Einstein is a hard worker.

My husband worked with parrots at Busch Gardens when we were in high school, and they can be very stubborn, but I am skeptical about the intelligence claim. Still, generic cheerios do taste like wood.
posted by misha at 7:44 AM on September 10, 2007


Here's an all-too-brief YouTube video of Alex.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:53 AM on September 10, 2007


generic cheerios do taste like wood

My dog says they're 'rough'.
posted by Phanx at 8:12 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh man, that sucks. I remember first hearing about Alex in one of those Weekly Reader things from elementary school, and then I studied him in more depth in a college bioanthropology class, along with Koko, Kanzi, and other animals who have displayed language skills - or the appearance thereof - on some level. It made for some great debates.
I don't know how much stock I put in the whole parrot intelligence thing, but either way I always got a kick out of Alex.
(Nice title, by the way).

.
posted by naoko at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2007


Pining for the fjords?
posted by miss lynnster at 8:21 AM on September 10, 2007


fare thee well, ex-Parrot.
posted by jonmc at 8:24 AM on September 10, 2007


"."
posted by klangklangston at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2007


Pew, pew, pew. Excellent.
posted by Mr_Zero at 8:29 AM on September 10, 2007


That trainer in the video was awfully stingy with the treats.

I thought the same, but then I realized they probably edited out all the treats.
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on September 10, 2007


Pining for the fjords?

It's a reference to Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch, like about another half-dozen comments so far.

Blinking pig-ignorant philistines.
posted by yhbc at 8:35 AM on September 10, 2007


Irene Pepperberg had this story that she would tell sometimes, about when she was at the MIT media lab. The powers that be had come around to see what she and Alex had been working on, which was phonetic pronunciation of appropriate sounds when shown a refrigerator-magnet letter (so, if shown an S, Alex was supposed to say 'ssss', and an N, 'nuh').
Alex was expected to do somewhat more than usual, while the bigwigs were there, and he wasn't given treats as reward, so as not to slow down the demo. So when he responded to every 'what sound?' (I think? might have been 'what letter?') he would immediately say 'want nut.' But Irene put him off, saying 'not now' and moving on to the next letter. This happened enough that finally, after being asked about some letter, Alex finally lost patience entirely and said, 'Want nut. Nuh, uh, tuh.'
He spelled 'nut,' phoneme by phoneme, spontaneously. I don't think he'd ever been asked to put together sounds into word forms before. Alex was awesome.

I volunteered in the lab for a little while, during a dearth of students, and took some photos, (if self-linking isn't too onerous). Alex never really liked me, possibly because I always had a camera in his face, but he was generally pretty cool. I will miss him (and I feel awful for Irene).
posted by zusty at 9:00 AM on September 10, 2007 [11 favorites]


A lot of animal species are more intelligent than we'd like to think. That said, behavioral studies with a sample size of 1 make me all twitchy. They say more about our cognition than the study species'.
posted by Tehanu at 9:07 AM on September 10, 2007


He's not pining, he's passed on. He's gone to meet his maker. If it weren't for the fact that you nailed him to his perch he'd be pushing up the daisys...
posted by Gungho at 9:09 AM on September 10, 2007


Rest in peace, Alex. You were amazing.
posted by agregoli at 9:10 AM on September 10, 2007


zusty, cool story and cool photos - did you make those shirts on the Flickr set?
posted by agregoli at 9:12 AM on September 10, 2007


Ah, never mind, I found them on the site.
posted by agregoli at 9:13 AM on September 10, 2007


Yeah, I make the shirts. They're really, uh, analog? If you know what I mean. If you order one, say you're from metafilter in the comments and I won't take my cut of the price. (Oh, and please allow some time... everyone's in mourning over there.)
posted by zusty at 9:21 AM on September 10, 2007


RIP, cutie Alex. Your persnickety personality will be missed.
posted by dammitjim at 9:21 AM on September 10, 2007


Oh no! Poor Alex.
posted by painquale at 9:26 AM on September 10, 2007


I have a horrifying anecdotal account of parrot intelligence. My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, and the family that owned the gas station lived next door to it and kept a parrot as a pet. While this parrot could "talk," it never displayed any particular intelligence, and its communications were restricted to typical trained parrot phrases like "Pretty bird" and "Want a cracker."

Then one night the house caught fire. The parents and children were able to escape, but before anyone could run back in to rescue the parrot, the flames from the fire made a rescue impossible. However, the parrot was close enough to the window that the family--and everyone else in town, including my mother, who had come out to watch the fire and help the family--could hear the parrot scream as it burned to death: "Get me out of here! I don't want to die! The flames are getting closer! For the love of god, please, someone help me!"
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:37 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


Alex could identify colors and other categories, and could count. I thought that was pretty neat. I first saw him on Scientific American Frontiers (third video on the page).
posted by zennie at 9:41 AM on September 10, 2007


This happened enough that finally, after being asked about some letter, Alex finally lost patience entirely and said, 'Want nut. Nuh, uh, tuh.'

As in the quote from the second link above .
posted by y2karl at 10:02 AM on September 10, 2007


Am I wrong, or isn't 31 pretty young for a parrot to die?
posted by miss lynnster at 10:11 AM on September 10, 2007


y2karl: well, that'll learn me. My apologies.
posted by zusty at 10:13 AM on September 10, 2007


I'm sure that Parrot Heaven has piles of nice warm macaroni for his little feets.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:49 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


This is tragic. Alex and Irene have done a massive amount for animal cognition, despite the stubborn conservatism that has colored the scientific consensus on intelligence in the last few decades. For many years, no one wanted to be the first to make the embarrassing claim that animals think. Irene came out and said in bluntly, and was marginalized for a long time. Her due is still coming.

As an amusing aside, I too have had the pleasure of meeting Alex -- my girlfriend worked in Irene's lab several years ago, and I visited on occasion. Alex would always come on to me pretty hard, jumping on my shoulder, squawking and rubbing himself on me. Apparently he likes human males, especially the mailman, IIRC. Nuttin' wrong with that. I was touched.
posted by ajshankar at 10:56 AM on September 10, 2007


GrrlScientist has a blog entry about Alex:

This species of parrot generally lives to be 50-60 years old, so Alex was only middle-aged when he died.
posted by Tehanu at 11:20 AM on September 10, 2007


Cool post.

While comparative judgements of animal intelligence are always very difficult to make objectively, Psittaciformes are generally regarded as being the most intelligent of birds. African grey parrots are particularly noted for their cognitive abilities, believed to have evolved as a consequence of their history of cooperative feeding on the ground in central Africa.

Alex died on September 7th 2007. At present, the cause of death is unknown. According to the Alex Foundation, he had appeared healthy the day before, and was found dead in the morning.

Could there have been fowl play?

The name Alex is actually an acronym, A.L.EX., standing for Avian Learning EXperiment.

N'kisi is another African Grey Parrot. "N'kisi had a vocabulary of about 950 words and used them in context, frequently in complete sentences, has approximated verb forms to maintain the correct tense..." wow

Jane Goodall's list of the five smartest animals on the planet.

Einstein the parrot is my favorite animal viral video. Really delightful.

In yskarl's previous thread there is quite a funny parrot anecdote by yhbc.

.
posted by nickyskye at 11:28 AM on September 10, 2007


Alex was amazing, and to this day wherever I see an African Gray, I think about Alex.

Unfortunately, I used to see them most often at the local mega-pet-super-fuzzy-thing store where they are roughly handled, sworn at, and generally abused by whomever walks by. Half the time, they have already started to pluck their own feathers due to the stress.

I wish I had the money and space to rescue them.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 11:33 AM on September 10, 2007


I am so glad you remembered that, nickyskye; I was thinking about telling that story in this thread and completely forgot I had told it already.
posted by yhbc at 11:39 AM on September 10, 2007


For many years, no one wanted to be the first to make the embarrassing claim that animals think.

This is one of the things I point to when confronted by the "hurrah for our unbiased modern science" crowd. Even a four-year-old knows that some animals think and feel, but scientists? Most of the time it's "animals are mindless automatons responding to instinct alone, they may seem to experience the world much as we do, but they actually don't", etc etc. And, of course, stating that something only seems to do X, without a scrap of hard evidence that it doesn't do X, and in the face of neurological evidence that suggests it might be able to do X, is perfectly in keeping with the scientific method...

At any rate, Alex challenged a lot of minds. He'll be remembered. Or, perhaps, when Dr. Pepperburg's other birds can do as he did 20 years from now, we'll still be arguing over whether or not they "really" think!
posted by vorfeed at 11:55 AM on September 10, 2007


I communicate, therefore I am.

Of course animals think. They're just not very smart, compared to humans, and, more important, they generally can't communicate their simple thoughts very well.

And then along comes a bird or gorilla who learns basic human language, conveys a few simple thoughts in a way we can explicitly understand, and everybody goes "Whoa."

Humans are animals. I don't understand why it's so mind-blowing that other animals think as well.
posted by LordSludge at 12:41 PM on September 10, 2007


Of course animals think. They're just not very smart, compared to humans, and, more important, they generally can't communicate their simple thoughts very well.

And, taken further, when they're observed displaying some sort of intelligence, it's too often described (particularly in the popular press) in anthropomorphic terms that deeply misrepresent or exhaggerate what's actually being observed. Reporters are willing to gush about how this or that animal "talks" or "understands language" in terms that just don't correllate to the (nonetheless genuinely interesting) actual observed behavior fo the animals.

Anecdotes like Alex reciting "Want nut. Nuh, uh, tuh." are both compelling and suspicious—compelling because it suggests some surprising layer of sound processing beyond the simplest rote memorization, something more like what we think of as language; suspicious, because it becomes hard to accept credulously the reports of non-linguists observing what they believe to be language use, as well as the reports of people so close to the subjects and so invested in the idea that they'll find animal language in those subjects.
posted by cortex at 1:00 PM on September 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


vorfeed, I don't know which scientists you've surveyed, but I have yet to meet one who believes that all animals are mindless automatons. Darwinism and Cartesian dualism are rather at odds on the relationship between human and non-human animals.
posted by zennie at 1:09 PM on September 10, 2007


You know, when you combine anecdotes like this with this video about crows using traffic to crack nuts, denying their intelligence becomes, well, stupid.

I mean, these crows in Japan actually drop their nuts into crosswalks, wait for them to be run over, wait for the WALK SIGN.... then stroll into the crosswalk with the humans, and quickly eat the nut meat before the light changes again.

The amount of planning and pure intelligence in this is almost frightening. I doubt most five year old humans would figure this one out.

I think it's highly likely that Alex knew exactly what he was saying, that he wasn't just a mimic.

For Chomsky, verbalism is very nearly a religion... he takes it almost to a mystical level. It doesn't surprise me that he'd deny that anything but humans can use language. He's monumentally intelligent, and invented a good chunk of linguistics, but at their core his arguments become almost supernatural. For him, humanity defines language, and, critically, language defines humanity. With his givens, it's not surprising that he'd refuse any other species admittance to the club.
posted by Malor at 1:33 PM on September 10, 2007 [3 favorites]


vorfeed, I don't know which scientists you've surveyed, but I have yet to meet one who believes that all animals are mindless automatons.

I know several educated people with scientific degrees who believe this, and who have gone so far as to argue the point. Cartesian dualism may not fit the scientific method, but there are definitely some scientists whose scientific methods always seem to fit Cartesian dualism. If I had a dollar for every time an assignment of emotion to an animal has been answered with "stop anthropomorphizing"... the implication is that animals do not feel emotions, and that's just not borne out by current neurological evidence.

I didn't mean my comment to be a shot against all science, but in my experience, there's a strong undercurrent of "humans are special" running through much of it. One look at this thread, with all the "hmm, it seems plausible but somehow I doubt it" comments, should be enough to suggest that "animals can think and feel" isn't anywhere close to being accepted as the obvious statement it should be.
posted by vorfeed at 1:39 PM on September 10, 2007


Oh, and my heartfelt condolences to Dr. Pepperberg; this must be just awful for her. Parrots are almost people, and losing such a long-time companion so suddenly must be agonizing.
posted by Malor at 1:41 PM on September 10, 2007


I agree, Malor, and share the sentiment. I can't imagine losing an animal friend who you've loved, lived with and worked with for so long.
posted by agregoli at 2:14 PM on September 10, 2007


.

But the language stuff is way exaggerated. Way.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:18 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


fourcheesemac declared:
"But the language stuff is way exaggerated. Way."

How?

And how do you know this?
posted by batmonkey at 3:21 PM on September 10, 2007


Language Log, which is written by linguistics professors, has been following this topic long-term (search on parrot). They have a lot to say on issues such as cognition, experimental design, interpretation of results, and general gullibiity of the media when given talking-animal stories.
posted by raygirvan at 3:54 PM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]


“Darwinism and Cartesian dualism are rather at odds on the relationship between human and non-human animals.”

Yes. Which makes it so weird that we find it in people who are otherwise not dualists. My theory is that human exceptionalism (and superiority) is so deeply enmeshed in western culture via Judeo-Christian doctrine (that is not replicated anywhere else, mostly, except in the remaining monotheistic, patriarchal faith) that it's taken as a given by everyone. A good example of finding it where it is surprising is the dominant form of misanthropy among environmental activists. So, so many contemporary ideologies all across the political spectrum, have built into them fundamental assumptions about at least a profound human exceptionalism, and at most some form of dualism or another. Yet another example is the blank-slate and near-blank-slate positions that highly privilege culture over evolutionary biology. Everywhere you look, the instinct is to say, "Yay, People! We're so cool! We're special!”

And it's true as well with the dogmatic linguists who, whether Chomskyian or not (our own LH is not Chomskyian, but this describes him) see language as unique to humans in its entirety and deny anything whatsoever like language among animals. It is simply intolerable for them for anyone to assert even a “minimal” or “partial” language competency. Language can't be a vast cluster of highly interdependent cognitive skills that some other animals migh share, in small part, with humans. No, instead, you have “blank-slate” uberanatgonist Pinker who ridicules the human exceptionalism of hard nurturism but then himself asserts a version of extreme human exceptionalism in the case of language, which he asserts is the result of the Chomskyan language-organ which is integral and unique to humans.

“the implication is that animals do not feel emotions”

That's a good example of the true absurdity and horribly ignorant, anachronistic, and non-scientific version of this particular form of human exceptionalism as regards cognition. It's the non-scientific romanticism that find emotions as some exalted human trait that animals don't possess. Well, the admirable ones, anyway. But everything we know about the brain and the nervous system from way back, not just recent brain research, shows that emotions are the most basic forms of cognition that at the very least all mammal brains share. Yet we persist in claiming that only humans can “love”, as if our love isn't deeply related to the biology of our social context and reproduction and as if other animals don't share similar contexts.

Finally, a lot of the assertion of human exceptionalism in this context is the result of a knee-jerk response to an equally sentimental and ignorant anthropomorphism that sees equality with humans that doesn't exist. But while we can safely say that the affection that my cat feels for me is not the same sort of affection I feel for anyone because cats simply evolved in a different context than we did and they don't have the same social structure which underlies many of our notions of love; it's certainly not the case that the essential nature of “love”, which is a bonding via mutual needs, is no less present in cats than in humans. Cats “love” their humans because we have bred them to displace their kittenish love of their mothers onto us while also breeding them to have artificially extended childhoods that essentially last their entire lives. They “love” us, the way that cats love. Is it human love? Of course not, cats aren't human. But human love is not essentially unrelated to the ways in which other animals are affectionate.

The hubris of denying this, of asserting humans as unique in this and so many other ways, is just as egregiously hubristic as imagining that animals greatly dissimilar to us are just like us because we've not the wit to imagine differences.

I say a pox on both houses. I'm sick of it. It's both tiresome and ignorant. And, as we've discussed, it's also often unintentionally deeply ironic to the point of absurdity. Few things are such while being so widespread that aren't cultural shibboleths. This is one of them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:57 PM on September 10, 2007 [4 favorites]


"It's the non-scientific romanticism that find emotions as some exalted human trait that animals don't possess. "

Really? I'd say romanticism would run toward recognizing emotions in animals.

More like non-scientific Platonism.
posted by klangklangston at 9:29 PM on September 10, 2007


Good point. I was looking for whatever it is that is that insipid point of view that feels the need to constantly laud the unique and elevated human love that will, for example, confound the robot's electronic mind and foil its plot for world domination.

People anthropomorphise some kinds of love when they talk about animals in a sentimental fashion, but they typically reserve the rarified “noblest thing in the universe” praise of love for human love, which, unsurprisingly is said to demonstrate our exceptional nature. That's what I was aiming for with “romantic”.

You know: “emotions are what makes us human”. Well, no, emotions are dirt common.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:53 PM on September 10, 2007


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