Earlier this month the world lost a very special bird, Alex, the African Grey Parrot.
In 1977, Dr Irene Pepperberg, then a doctoral student at Harvard, went to a pet store to purchase an African Grey Parrot for her Avian Learning Experiment (Alex is an acronym of this title). Dr Pepperberg didn't choose Alex as an extraordinary example of the species, insisting that the store-keeper choose a "typical" African Gray for her.
Training Alex using what is now known as the "model-rival" technique, Dr Pepperberg was able to teach Alex scores of words which he could put into categories, to count up to six objects, and to recognise colors and shapes. Dr Pepperberg suggested that Alex showed the intellectual capabilities of a five year old human.
The Model-Rival technique relies on a helper to "compete" with the subject for a reward given by the trainer. The helper models the behavior that is being trained. If successful, the subject tries to reproduce the correct behavior.
Alex passed away during the night on the 6th of September 2007, age 31. There was no obvious cause of death and he was in good health according to a recent veterinary examination.
Our condolences to Dr Pepperberg and those who knew and worked with Alex.
To find out more about Alex, visit http://www.alexfoundation.org