Goodbye, Alex

In Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination with the World’s Most Talkative Bird, Bruce Thomas Boehrer quotes a short but telling conversation about nuts.

Alex: Wanna nut.
Irene: Want another one? How about a different kind? What kind of nut is this?
Alex: Walnut. . . .
(Takes walnut, drops it immediately.)
Irene: You don’t like walnuts? Do you want anything else?. . .
Alex: Want cork.

While the subject is mundane, the conversation stands out as remarkable, for this was not a snack time chat between a mother and a toddler, but a dialog between research psychologist Irene Pepperberg and Alex, the celebrated African gray parrot whose ability to construct sentences and invent new words ("corknut" for almond) led humans to a deeper understanding of avian intelligence.

Alex died last week at the age of 31.  News of his passing made yesterday’s New York Times. Not bad for a bird, but perhaps not so unusual for a parrot. Alex’s psittacine ability to speak not only inspired scientists, but also made an appearance in Oryx and Crake, a novel by Margaret Atwood, placing him in the long line of parrots who have captured human imagination from Ovid to Monty Python.

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