Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Finished Project

Finallly, finally I'm done with the BH book. It's small, but covers everything, and now rests in the hands of Avian Publications.

I was going to self-publish but it's such a hassle to do all that layout and design and marketing stuff, so I've got my fingers crossed Avian Publications will accept it as one of the their titles. Far less money that way, but far less aggravation and sleepless nights.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Now I'm ready to get my humor columns together; I am going to self-publish those in a book. As soon as I think up a title.

Peace in the House

Nice uneventful couple of weeks. Sugar Franklin has been molting heavily and demands incessant scritching. The other three are molting but aren't being as demanding as Sugar is.

Sugar's infected feather follicle has cleared up beautifully, and she's back to her sweet self-centered, spoiled self. It was worth any amount of oral feedings and bites and hurt feelings to see her back to prancing around and preening like the goddess she is.

Yesterday I took Nicholas in for a nail and wing trim. One front nail on each foot always grows much longer than the other nails. The only thing the vet and I can figure out is that he's standing in such a way that nail isn't getting worn down like the others. He's 14 to 15 years old and has, I suspect, arthritis, so I just put it down to that.

In this picture he's being cute; he's such a show-off. He was noisy and calling the entire time we were at the vet's. The other three like attention, but Nicholas would be a prima dona if he were a human. I could see him on the stage, bowing while the audience threw roses at him and the critics raved.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Alex the Grey

Goodbye Alex.

Alex, the 31-year-old African grey belonging to Dr. Irene Pepperberg, is dead. To say that parrot lovers are devastated would be an understatement.

Why mourn a bird I've never met?

Because Alex was a major part of the bridge that's slowly being built between animals and humans.

And because Alex was Alex.

I don't write decent obituaries, and this is no different.

Alex is dead; may his work live on.

Here's the formal press release, explaining why Alex was so important to us all:

WALTHAM, MA (SEPTEMBER 10, 2007)—Alex, the world renowned African Grey parrot made famous by the ground-breaking cognition and communication research conducted by Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D., died at the age of 31 on September 6, 2007. Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as “I want X” and “Wanna go Y”, where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 year-old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.

In 1973, Dr. Pepperberg was working on her doctoral thesis in theoretical chemistry at Harvard University when she watched Nova programs on signing chimps, dolphin communication and, most notably, on why birds sing. She realized that the fields of avian cognition and communication were not only of personal interest to her but relatively uncharted territory. When she finished her thesis, she left the field of chemistry to pursue a new direction—to explore the depths of the avian mind. She decided to conduct her research with an African Grey parrot. In order to assure she was working with a bird representative of its species, she asked the shop owner to randomly choose any African Grey from his collection. It was Alex. And so the 1-year old Alex, his name an acronym for the research project, Avian Learning EXperiment, became an integral part of Pepperberg’s life and the pioneering studies she was about to embark upon.

Over the course of 30 years of research, Dr. Pepperberg and Alex revolutionized the notions of how birds think and communicate. What Alex taught Dr. Pepperberg about cognition and communication has been applied to therapies to help children with learning disabilities. Alex’s learning process is based on the rival-model technique in which two humans demonstrate to the bird what is to be learned. Alex and Dr. Pepperberg have been affiliated with Purdue University, Northwestern University, the University of Arizona, the MIT Media Lab, the Radcliffe Institute, and most recently, Harvard University and Brandeis University.
Alex has been featured worldwide on numerous science programs including the BBC, NHK, Discovery and PBS. He is well known for his interactions with Alan Alda in an episode of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS and from an episode of the famed PBS Nature series called “Look Who’s Talking.” Reports on Alex’s accomplishments have appeared in the popular press and international news from USA Today to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. The Science Times section of the New York Times featured Alex in a front-page story in 1999. That same year, Dr. Pepperberg published The Alex Studies, a comprehensive review of her decades of learning about learning from Alex. Many other television appearances and newspaper articles followed.

Alex was found to be in good health at his most recent annual physical about two weeks ago. According to the vet who conducted the necropsy, there was no obvious cause of death. Dr. Pepperberg will continue her innovative research program at Harvard and Brandeis University with Griffin and Arthur, two other young African Grey parrots who have been a part of the ongoing research program.

Alex has left a significant legacy—not only have he and Dr. Pepperberg and their landmark experiments in modern comparative psychology changed our views of the capabilities of avian minds, but they have forever changed our perception of the term “bird brains.”

For press contacts:
The Alex Foundation and Dr. Pepperberg can be reached by e-mail at the or by phone at 781-736-2195.