My Wonderful Life Moment
How much impact could a one-pound ball of feathers have on the world? It took death for me to find out. And so I write the story of a particular bird's life, but it must begin at the end.
"Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End," ran a New York Times science section headline on September 11, 2007, the day after our press release announcing Alex's passing. "He knew his colors and shapes, he learned more than 100 English words," wrote Benedict Carey, "and with his own brand of one-liners he established himself in television shows, scientific reports and news articles as perhaps the world's most famous talking bird." Carey quoted my friend, colleague, and expert on dolphin and elephant communication, Diana Reiss: "The work revolutionized the way we think of bird brains. That used to be a pejorative, but now we look at those brains—at least Alex's—with some awe."
I found myself saying much the same thing in the newspaper, magazine, radio, and television interviews that overwhelmed me those first few days. People would ask, "What is all the fuss about, why was Alex so special?" and I'd say, "Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by bird brain.' It changed the way we think about animal thinking." That was the scientific truth I had known for many years, and now the idea was beginning to be accepted. But that didn't help me with the personal devastation.
Friends drove up from Washington, D.C., that first weekend to ensure I would not be alone, that I would eat and at least try to rest. I functioned each minute, hour, day on automatic pilot, doing whatever was necessary, deprived of sleep, torn by grief. And all amidst this very public outpouring. I was aware of it, of course, yet not fully aware, not then, anyway. I was cognizant of the gathering acclaim, inevitably so because of this endless stream of interviews. But it seemed to involve someone else, or at least had an unreality to it. The phone would ring and I'd click into "interview mode," responding as I had many other times when something Alex had done occasioned a media blitz, responding in a professional manner to the inquiries. This time, however, I'd fall apart until the next call.
Pictures of Alex appeared on CNN, in Time magazine, and in scores of other places across the country. National Public Radio ran a story on All Things Considered: "Alex the Parrot, an Apt Student, Passes Away." ATC's host, Melissa Block, said, "Alex shattered the notion that parrots are only capable of mimicking words." Diane Sawyer did a two-and-a-half-minute segment on ABC's Good Morning America—long for morning television, I'm told. "And now I have a kind of obituary," she began, "and I want to inform the next of kin about a death in the family. And, yes, the next of kin would be all of us." She said that Alex had been a kind of bird genius, "opening new vistas on what animals can do." She aired a video that showed Alex answering questions about the color, shape, and number of objects, and so on. The video landed on YouTube. The previous day, CBS anchor Katie Couric devoted more time to Alex's life and death than to major political stories.
Two days later, the prominent British newspaper, The Guardian, wrote, "America is in mourning. Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31." The story was spreading around the world,...
Author: Irene Pepperberg
Irene M. Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and teaches animal cognition at Harvard University. She is head of the Alex Foundation and author of The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots.
"[Pepperberg's] book movingly combines the scientific detail of a researcher...with the affectionate understanding that children instinctively possess...." - Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"To anyone who's dreamed of talking with the animals, Dr. Doolittle style, Alex was a revelation...This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex's charms on principle. But his achievements got the better of me...Alex was a celebrity, and this book will surely please his legions of fans." - New York Times Book Review
"A moving tribute that beautifully evokes 'the struggles, the initial triumphs, the setbacks, the unexpected and often stunning achievements' during a grounbreaking scientific endeavor..." - Publishers Weekly