Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 21, 2007

Goodbye, Alex!

When I read about the death last week of Alex, the 31-year-old African Gray Parrot, I felt a twinge of sadness.

Alex, whose name was an acronym for "Avian Learning Experiment," learned to identify 50 objects, seven colors, five shapes and quantities up to six, according to news reports about his death. Brandeis University professor Irene Pepperberg bought the bird from a pet shop in 1977 and worked with him for 30 years to study the avian brain. The knowledge gleaned from her research with Alex has been applied to therapies for children with learning disabilities. The work will go on with other African Grays, but still, his death was a shock to those who worked with him.

I didn't know Alex, but I may have met a couple of his relatives or friends. It was on a beautiful balmy Sunday in September a few years ago. I had taken Mom and daughters Mariya and Katie to the zoo. We leisurely strolled through the grounds and decided to visit the chimpanzee habitat first. We watched as the young ones ran, climbed and leaped from branch to branch while the adults sat quietly, looking somewhat bemused by their offspring's antics and bored by the stares of the curious visitors.

Soon we were on our way, wandering the various paths that led us past monkeys, a wallaby, an emu, a pot-bellied pig, peacocks, tigers and prairie dogs.

But my favorites were the two African Gray Parrots. The parrots - about 12- to 15-inches long - were predominantly gray, with darker gray wings and a white area around their eyes. The most prominent feature of the birds, though, was a bright red tail - and their ability to talk.

We stopped to look at them and they looked at us. As we started to turn away, I could have sworn one of them meowed. I turned back.

"Meow," the parrot said, distinctly.

"Meow," I responded, coaxing the parrots to repeat the sound.

But they weren't into "parroting" what I said. They whistled two different whistles - the one used to call someone here and the one that guys use when they indicate their appreciation of a pretty woman.

Then they began talking again with one asking for a "cracker." As we turned to leave, there was a distinct, "Come 'ere!"

I was fascinated. We went on to see other animals, but I had to return a time or two to listen to the parrots again. We eventually had to leave so I bid the birds goodbye. I can't remember for sure, but I think they might have said "'bye" to me, too.

I learned later that the African Grays had died. I was sorry about that because I was looking forward to seeing - and hearing - them again.

So when I heard the report about Alex and how he entertained and amazed the people who knew him, it reminded me of my encounter and I immediately understood how much the researchers will miss the African Gray. He was much more than an experiment to them - he was a faithful colleague.

The CBS News report on Alex's death included a clip with him saying, "I love you." Now who wouldn't miss hearing that?

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