Alex the talking parrot is probably one of the most famous birds to have ever lived. The ability of this smart African Grey parrot to speak English words and phrases continues to amaze people, and had many asking whether society might soon be able to communicate with animals. Sadly, Alex passed away from natural causes in 2007 at the age of 31, but he will be remembered fondly as the bird who could speak.
Named after the acronym Avian Language Experiment by his trainer, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, Alex the parrot furthered the research on how - and if - animals can learn human communication. Such discoveries were previously seen in Koko the gorilla and Washoe the chimpanzee being able to understand sign language. Several other African grey parrots also continue Alex's legacy and are fast becoming celebrities themselves.
Some of Alex's last words were "You be good. I love you." He may have had the brain the size of a walnut, but he probably understood much more than we'll ever know.
There are two types of African grey parrots - the Timneh African grey and the Congo African grey. Both types are known for their ability to speak and are considered the most intelligent of all the talking parrots in the world. It has even been noted they can be as smart as a five year-old child. They are native to Africa, but because of deforestation in their natural habitat, they've been virtually eliminated out of their home in the Congo.
African Grey parrots are known for being moody - playful and loving one minute and demanding the next. They are also able to use their extreme intelligence to mimic sounds and outsmart predators.
Dr. Irene Pepperberg was a doctoral chemistry student at Purdue University when she realized she wanted to work with African grey parrots to learn about their communication abilities. She adopted Alex from a Chicago pet store in 1977, naming him in an acronym after her planned "Avian Language Experiment."
During their time together, they developed a special bond. She wrote in a column for the Daily Mail:
By 1998, Alex and I knew each other so well that we sometimes behaved like an old married couple. One day, irked more than usual by the recalcitrance of other scientists, I stormed into the lab. Before I’d uttered a word, Alex had fixed me with his beady eye and said: ‘Calm down!’ Without pausing to think that this was a remarkable thing for a bird to say, I snapped back: ‘Don’t tell me to calm down!’
In the 30 years that Dr. Irene Pepperberg worked with Alex, he was able to learn about 150 words as well as colors and shapes, and could count using small numbers. Alex could categorize words rather than just repeating them and had the ability to use phrases such as "I love you" and "I'm sorry" correctly.
Some scientists are still skeptical Alex actually knew the true meaning of what he was saying, but it appears Alex was able to comprehend what words meant. Dr. Pepperberg notes, "If Alex said, ‘Want grape’ and you gave him a bit of banana, he’d spit it right back at you and repeat insistently, ‘Want grape.’ And he wouldn’t stop till he got what he wanted."
Alex enjoyed making demands of his humans and ruled the roost at the lab, which then consisted of parrots Wart (Arthur) and Griffin. He was also observed helping them learn and cheering them on. Alex had the ability to communicate boredom and frustration, and could be moody, knocking a tray of objects over when he didn't feel like identifying them.
Alex probably had even more going on in his little head than people gave him credit for. Dr. Pepperberg noted, "But why, I wondered, had Alex’s pronunciation so dramatically improved from one day to the next? The answer became clear when I left a tape running overnight, and found that - like small children - he happily babbled to himself, often practicing a newly acquired word."