MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Any way you look at it, he was one smart bird. Alex the African gray parrot, who took part in famous communications and cognition experiments, has died. Alex was purchased over 30 years ago in a retail pet store by Professor Irene Maxine Pepperberg. She's now affiliated with Brandeis University and also with Harvard. And back in 1996, she and Alex were heard on this program showing off.
Dr. IRENE MAXINE PEPPERBERG (Professor of Psychology, Brandeis University): What's here?
ALEX (African Gray Parrot): Truck.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That's a good boy. Truck. Good parrot. How many?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That's right. Good boy.
ALEX: Want a nut.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Well, you can have a nut. You can go choose your own.
NORRIS: Dr. Pepperberg, who says she considers the label birdbrain a compliment, spoke with again this afternoon and she remembered just how bright Alex was. She says he was the emotional equivalent of a 2-year-old human and the intellectual equivalent of a 5-year-old.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: He could identify a number of different objects, about 50 different objects. He knew seven colors. He knew five shapes. He knows concepts of bigger and smaller or same and different, of absence. He has a zero-like concept. So if you gave him a tray with three, four and six things on it, and you ask him what color five, he'd say none as there were no five things on the tray. So these are pretty sophisticated things for a parrot with this - the brain size of about that of a shelled walnut.
NORRIS: And you said that he also had the emotional equivalent of a 2-year-old child - emotions.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yes, emotions. You know, when we're doing tests - we had to repeat tests many times for statistical significance. And so, you know, 12 trials wasn't good enough. We would need - sometimes need 60 or 70 trials. And we go through about 12, 15 trials and then we put things out for him and he'd looked at the tray with - he suddenly take his beak and throw them all off.
NORRIS: So he'd throw a tantrum every now and then.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That's right. Or he'd say want to go back, want, you know, and would then sort of asking for everything in the lab - want corn, want corn, want banana - just to distract us.
NORRIS: So you went to the terrible two's?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yes.
NORRIS: As any parent will tell you, that's a tough period.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That's right. That's right.
NORRIS: And much like a human child, Alex had a tendency to surprise Dr. Pepperberg, occasionally butting in on research with other parrots.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: We were doing sequential sound with the younger bird, Griffin. And so what we do, we have a computer program and it would say, click, several times. So, you know, it would sound like listen.
(Soundbite of snapping)
How many? And we asked Griffin and his little beak was in the air that day and he didn't answer. So I went, I said Griffin, come on, listen.
(Soundbite of snapping)
How many? And Alex goes in and he says four. And I tell him to be quiet because I clicked twice. And I go, Griffin, listen.
(Soundbite of snapping)
How many? And Alex goes six. And all of a sudden, it occurred to me that the thing...
NORRIS: So he's counting.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yeah.
NORRIS: Dr. Pepperberg, how were you able to apply this research?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: In terms of humans?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: I've been working with a colleague, Diane Sherman(ph), in Monterey, California. She works with children with various disabilities and she's adapted our training program, a modeling technique, to work with these children to help them communicate. We've published two papers on working with children with autism, children who have some, you know, high-level autism children, and helping to get social skills using these training technique.
NORRIS: Well, if you were engaged in an exchange with Alex, how would the two of you end your conversation? How would he say goodbye?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, the evening routine - the last thing that I heard him say. I would tell him it's time to go on his cage and he'd fill up and - then his routine would be - he would tell me you be good. I love you. I'll see you tomorrow.
NORRIS: He would tell you that?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: He would tell me that. That was part of the goodnight routine.
NORRIS: My goodness. Dr. Pepperberg, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Thank you so much for having me here.
NORRIS: We've been speaking with Dr. Irene Maxine Pepperberg. She was owner of a very special African gray parrot called Alex.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.