Friday, September 21, 2007

Goodnight Irene: The Parrot That Changed The World

Alex will never count colorful blocks again.

Alex, the smartest bird of all time, died earlier this month, at the tender age of 31. As long-time readers of this site will note, we have written obituaries for birds before, which makes us experts at this. However, this eulogy is much more difficult to write than Oscar's was, as none of us ever actually knew Alex. But we can imagine that life is just as tough for a parrot from Africa as it is for a chicken from the Garfield Park ghetto.

We will attempt to do his life justice with the written word. Here we go.

Alex hatched in a regular pet store in 1976, during the heart of the hippie revolution, the "flower power" years, just after the end of the Vietnam war. Alex was an African grey parrot, bought by his owner, best friend, teacher, and hetero life-mate, Dr. Irene M. Pepperberg.

Hello, Dr. Pepperberg.

In addition to having a powerhouse last name, Dr. Pepperberg was a young doctor with brilliant fantasies of researching the intricacies of the avian mind. She fell in love with the parrot instantly, and trained Alex to speak and interact with humans. She quickly noted how special this particular parrot was.

Alex knew over 100 words, and even made up some of his own from time to time. He could identify about 50 objects, and his small parrot brain could even grasp the concepts of 'bigger' and 'smaller', or 'same' and 'different'. When asked questions, he answered correctly over 80% of the time.

He could express emotions, and he could even get annoyed. If he said "Wanna banana" and was given a nut instead, he would stare in silence, and ask for the banana again, or simply throw the nut at the researcher. Alex could even get lonely. Once, when Dr. Pepperberg took him to a visit at the vet, Alex said "Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back."

Oh, what a lucky bird he was.

For the majority of his time on this here green planet, Alex lived a life of hard work, fine luxury, and constant learning and companionship. To his fellow grey parrot roommates and friends, he was a ringleader, a yardstick by which the merits of all other parrots were to be married. To the people in the lab with which he worked, he was an inspiration and he was a tough boss, ordering them around the lab with his high-pitched demands.

But to Dr. Pepperberg, he was more than just a pet: He was a dear friend, a loving family member, a beacon of light. He was her lighthouse, her compass. Over the 31 years they spent together, Dr. Pepperberg (NOTE: "Dr. Pepperberg" may be the best name we have ever come across, due to its similarity to the popular carbonated beverage Dr. Pepper, and to the easiness with which you can type it) shared her life and home with this feathered genius, and the two became very close.

That bird was like a brother to her.

Alex crunches some numbers.

So it is with great fondness that Dr. Pepperberg remembers the last time she saw Alex alive. It was Thursday evening, two weeks ago. They performed their standard goodnight routine, during which she informed Alex that it was time to go in his cage for the night. According to Dr. Pepperberg, Alex said "You be good. I love you."

"I love you too," Dr. Pepperberg replied.

"You'll be in tomorrow?" asked Alex.

"Yes, I'll be in tomorrow," said Dr. Pepperburg.

And that was the last time the two life-long friends would meet. The next morning, Alex's body was found in his cage. He was 31 years old, a spring chicken in parrot years, as they can live to 60 years of age. He has his regular physical a few weeks earlier, and was reported to be in perfect health. An autopsy could not confirm the cause of death.

Dr. Pepperberg has started an "Alex Foundation" to raise money for further parrot research, so that's worth a look if you are interested in helping the cause. Dr. Pepperberg gets all of her funding from the foundation, as no university or federal funding has been granted her, possibly due to the funniness of Dr. Pepperberg's last name.

It's interesting to note how one little parrot can have such a profound impact on the life of millions of people... Not just the person he lived with for 31 years.

And that person was Dr. Pepperberg.


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