Sunday, September 09, 2007

Alex RIP

You may have seen Alex on TV. That is where I first came across him.

He provided evidence that animals are not dumb.

And he gave new meaning to bird brained.

The African Grey Parrot is a medium-sized parrot of the genus Psittacus native to Africa, and is considered one of the most intelligent birds. Pet owners often liken the experience of keeping an African Grey to that of raising a young child, not only because of the birds' intelligence, but also arising from the substantial time commitment which they require.

Sad! Alex the Grey Parrot, Dead at 31

Dr. Pepperberg purchased Alex from a Chicago pet store in June, 1977. He can label seven colors, is learning the alphabet and can count up to six objects. Alex is also working on identifying objects from photographs. Alex likes cardboard boxes, keychains, and corks.

Teaching an Avian Scholar

Here at the lab, we are often asked exactly how it is that
Alex is trained. Just as you would assume, Alex has
been taught using a strong language-based format. We
are careful to always use words in context when
speaking to Alex, Griffin, and Wart, and we constantly
label all actions and objects associated with their daily
lives. Objects we’re likely to speak about include
everything from food items to toys to favorite perches.
Common actions that are labeled include such activities
as making breakfast, taking a shower, giving a tickle, or
going back (which is the delightful way Alex asks to be
returned to his cage top).

We simply talk to the birds in a way that most people speak to human babies
and small children during their quest to acquire language. However, that is by
no means suggesting that meaningless baby talk is ever used with the lab parrots.
Rather, we use sentence frames as a way of inserting and stressing the label for
a single object in several different sentences.

For example, let’s say the target word might be ‘corn’. While offering corn to Alex,
we might say “Alex, would you like some corn?” and “Did you notice the corn is
yellow?” and “Corn tastes yummy.”

The practice of using such sentence frames combined with consistently labeling
everyday objects and actions has greatly aided in Alex’s vocabulary development.
However, we use actual training sessions to teach Alex the necessary things he
needs to know for the research work.

Alex (1976 - 2007)

Category: Animal Behavior
Posted on: September 8, 2007 3:54 PM, by Coturnix

It is not unusal to write an obituary when a great scientist passes away. It is much more unusual to do so when a lab animal does so. But when that animal is not just an experimental subject, but also a friend, colleague, teacher and collaborator, than the species boundaries lose importance. And Alex, the famous African Grey Parrot, was just that, and more, to Irene Pepperberg and to the entire field of cognitive ethology. He died yesterday, unexpectedly, at the age of 31 (about half the normal life expectancy for the species) and he will be sorely missed. You can send donations, that will assure the research goes on with Alex's younger buddies Griffin and Wart, to the Alex Foundation.

Repost: The Story of Alex

Category: Friday Grey Matters
Posted on: September 8, 2007 4:52 PM, by Shelley Batts

This is a repost from July of 2006. I thought it was appropriate, given Alex's passing. Please check out Friday Grey Matters in my archives for many more reports on Dr. Pepperberg's work with Alex.


Alex is a 28-year-old African Grey parrot who lives in the lab of Irene Pepperberg, in Brandeis University, and is the eqivalent of a superstar in the bird world. Long ago, Dr. Pepperberg chose Alex at a pet store as neither an exceptional nor sub-par bird. Through the years, Dr. Pepperberg has engaged Alex in a complex form of communication, where, much like a parent teaching a child, Alex is taught the proper "name" for an object. Now, he can label more than 100 items, including seven colors, five shapes, counting up to six, and three categories (color, shape, material of an object). This is amazing when you consider that this bird is working with a brain the size of a walnut! In addition, Alex has learned to ask for an item he wants. When the incorrect item is brought, he will either ignore it, or throw it at the person! :) He has learned to say "no" if an item is incorrect, and to tell his handlers when he wants to go back to his cage, or come out.

Here's an example of a test that Dr. Pepperberg might present to Alex: seven items on a tray, of differing colors and shapes. She asks "What shape is green and wood?" (This is the way to ask what is the shape of the object which is green and made of wood?) Amazingly, Alex answers correctly over 80% of the time. This is obviously far more than chance, and operant conditioning also cannot account for it as he answers the same, even to novel researchers. The content of the question, and answer, is understood by this bird. She also might ask, "How many wood?" (How many objects on the tray are made of wood?) He looks at the tray for a few seconds, and then answers with a number, again correct 80% of the time! He can replicate this up to six items.

Alex has also "coined" words, or made up new words to use for unfamilar objects. An example of this is when he first encountered an apple. He already knew the word for "banana" and "strawberry, " and the first time he saw an apple he called it a "bananaberry." This was hypothesized to be because an apple was red like a strawberry by white inside like a banana, so Alex put the two words together to make a new word! He has done this several times, like calling an almond a "cork nut" because of the nut's texture like a cork. He can be inventive and creative.

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