By Robin Abrahams
I just learned that Alex the African Grey parrot died last week. He died young for a parrot; he was only 31.
Alex was the research partner of Dr. Irene Pepperberg. With Alex--not some special genius Good Will Pecking of a parrot, just an ordinary old African Grey from a pet store--Dr. Pepperberg began a remarkable journey into the depths of the avian mind. Into the very roots of thought and language.
Alex's accomplishments were many. He could express his desires, categorize objects, understand and communicate relative concepts like "bigger" and "smaller," and much more. He was starting to learn the alphabet. To a non-psychologist, all this may not sound like a big deal. But it was. He changed our notion of what the avian mind is capable of, and helped us better understand the nature of mind itself. Dr. Pepperberg's work with him also gave rise to new teaching techniques that have been used successfully with learning-disabled children.
Rest in peace, Alex. Of all the luminaries in our city, you were one of the ones I most wanted to meet, and I am so very sorry I never did. You taught us respect and wonder. You made us laugh and think. You were an ambassador for your species and a benefactor of ours.
You were a gentleman.
I hope that heaven is filled with keys and cardboard boxes and corks and nuts, all for you.
UPDATE: The Globe has a good story about Alex here.