Tuesday, September 11, 2007

R.I.P. Alex: Parrot and Road Warrior

R.I.P. Alex the Parrot, dead at 31.

And I do mean rest in peace, little fella. Because it seems to me that that magnificent critter spent a lot of his short life (African gray parrots often live 60 years or more) being studied, importuned, drilled and displayed on behalf of parrot research.

Alex, it seemed to me, led a stressful life. I mean, the poor guy was probably on the road more than I am.

You know about Alex , the world's most famous parrot.

On the Alex Foundation Web site today, at the page for ordering Alex merchandise like coffee cups and tote bags, I am sad to see the bird's death obliquely referred to as "the events of Sept. 7." Come on, Alex Foundation. Alex himself could have come up with better words to convey the simple fact that he died on Sept. 7.

Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who owned and trained Alex and who runs the Alex Foundation, said he was a very hard worker. "Someone was working with him 8 to 12 hours every day of his life," she told the Boston Globe after the bird died.

Yes, Alex was amazing in the way he could comprehend number sequences and figure out patterns. Anyone who says Alex wasn't exhibiting cognitive skills wasn't paying attention. You didn't need psychologists with clipboards to prove that Alex spoke a language, though of course one of the values of the research is to document the cognitive abilities of a parrot rather than just assert them anecdotally.

Alex knew more than 100 words -- but lots of African gray parrots know that many and more.

As I write this, our four-year-old African gray, Rosie, is downstairs singing her favorite song, which my wife and I taught her after she began repeating "Rosie is a goofy bird." It goes [to the tune of Tra Ra Ra BOOM dee Yay]:

"Rosie is a goofy bird,
Petey is a goofy bird,
Nancy is a goofy bird,
Joesharkey is a goofy bird;

Tra ra ra BOOM dee yay!"

(et cetera)

Petey is our big blue-and-gold macaw, who speaks about 15 words to Rosie's vocabulary of well over 100. Nancy is my wife. When not singing, Rosie refers to me as "Joesharkey -- BEEP," evidently because she loves to imitate the message on my business-phone answering machine and thinks my name is one word.

Neither Rosie nor Petey perform reliably on cue, by the way. Parrots who are not kept hungry tend not to do a great big song and dance to get a treat. They do the song and dance when they feel like it. Put a camera and a light in Rosie's face and she'll be as mum as a pigeon till she feels like making an observation, if at all.

Ours also are not long-distance travelers, though they like an occasional ride in the car. They are not what you would call hard workers. A mere trip to the vet gets our birds so worn out they sleep in exhaustion for extra hours, besides the 12 hours of shut-eye they normally get in a 24-hour period. God knows what constant trips to television stations and seminars would do to them.

Alex was just more of a road warrior than most parrots.

Anyone who has or knows an African gray loves to tell parrot stories.

Our friend Mark Delaney, who owns a parrot store in Red Bank, N.J. , won't sell a bird to someone he hasn't vetted for the potential for parrotsmanship. It takes a couple of visits, as a rule, to pass muster. Those who come in on a whim, say after watching Alex perform on television, are encouraged to give a lot of thought to what owning a parrot entails.

Mark has a lot of parrots, among them an African gray named Bubba. Some time ago, in another location, Mark had been grumbling with friends about a chronic problem with a squirrel skittering on his shop's roof. Bubba evidently liked the sound of the word "squirrel" (especially when uttered in the context of "commotion" or "drama," all of which parrots love).

Soon, Bubba began saying the following:

"Bubba is a squirrel."

And Mark would say, "No, Bubba is a bird."

And the bird would insist, "Bubba is a squirrel."

This went on for several weeks until one day Bubba compromised and said:

"Bubba is a squird."

Alex isn't the only parrot who seemed to speak a language, rather than to just repeat words, and to exhibit a sense of humorous word-play.

In our house, Rosie loves to talk. "See ya later," she says when I head up the stairs. "It's raining," she says when it rains. "Petey, do I have to jug you for screaming?" she tells the macaw when he screams too much, repeating what we say to him. (An inappropriate screaming session gets the macaw a 5-minute time-out in a quiet room, where he mutters to himself).

Rosie also sings and whistles and makes weird outer-space noises that we sincerely hope she picked up from a television cartoon, as she didn't get them from us.

She likes anything with a catchy beat. "B-b-b-b-b-b-b-Bird-Bird-Bird, Bird Is the Word" is a favorite. She loves show-tunes (she's partial to "Ohio" ["Why O Why O Why O; Why Did I Ever Leave Ohio?"] from "Wonderful Town," but she also whistles "Many a Fine Day" from "Oklahoma," with approximate key changes and vibrato embellishments). She does part of the coloratura aria, "Poor Wandering One," from "Pirates of Penzance." (The professional operatic version, not that musically awful Joe Papp/Linda Ronstadt version). Actually, she does just the high notes, but she hits the triplets dead-on.

Last year, before our nephew graduated from the Naval Academy, we taught her to sing "Anchors Aweigh," but she liked the "Hey! Hey! Hey!" part so much that by graduation day she had shortened the verse down to just "Anchors Aweigh My Birds -- Hey! Hey! Hey!"

And yes, she changed "my boys" to "my birds" on her own, without prompting, which sounds like language to me.

An appreciation of parrots in general comes with the Mark Delaney advisory:

Parrots are intensely loyal creatures who bond deeply with owners and are bereft if that bond is broken, so an owner has a long-term responsibility to commit to a parrot. Parrots are sloppy and noisy and can be demanding and temperamental. They can bite, especially when alarmed. They can't be left alone for long periods of time like cats. They crave attention. They thrive on drama. They chew wood, including furniture. Like the perpetual three-year-olds that they are, they repeat things you'd just as soon they not repeat.

One does not undertake parrot ownership lightly and without an ethical commitment to the bird. We're already grooming a grandson, 3, to inherit our two birds, who adore him.

When either my wife or I are away on a business trip, the traveler has to call home at night and talk to the birds on the speaker-phone. If you're sitting next to me in an airport departure gate and hear me saying into my cell-phone "I love you, Petey-bird" -- please know that I'm addressing a parrot. I didn't actually name a kid Petey-bird or Rosie-bird, like Lyndon Johnson might have.

I have to go. Rosie is downstairs shrieking "Help me! Help me!" -- which she picked up from some television cartoon that I let her watch. Petey is yelling one of the few phrases he knows: "Come on back!" -- and I don't want the neighbors to call 911.

Adios, little Alex.

Or as Petey likes to sometimes shriek maniacally: "Bye bye!!!! Bye bye!!!"


1 comment:

Cassandra_Moderna said...

Are you going soft on us?

(Just kidding.)

I had 5 birds when I lived in Holland (not all at once, but 3 were African greys, 2 of which I hand fed), 15 birds in the U.S. (the 2 hand feds and 2 wild African greys -- if you hide and spy on them, it is incredible how nice they are to each other), here in Brazil I had several birds, but I decided to not get any more until I retire out in the country (whenever that might be, maybe when and if I hit 80) because my last bird, a cockatiel flew out the door in a panic at 3 a.m. because I was here at the PC when a cockroach the size of a Mac truck decided to run up my bare leg and I jumped and screamed so loud I woke up the neighbors. And there I was at 3 a.m. in the middle of the deserted street kinda yelling, "Bird! Bird?"

Yeah, they bond.