Alex, an African grey parrot and one of the most celebrated scientific subjects died of natural causes a few days ago. He was 31 and spent most of his life working with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard. Alex became famous for his cognitive abilities. He knew more than 100 English words, could tell between different colors and shapes and occasionally came up with unique one-liners which would amaze people not familiar with success rates of animals trying to "speak". Alex's considerable abilities, along with other examples of studies of birds, are making us aware that birds are not ...well....bird-brained.
For example some recent studies on Caledonian crows have revealed complex tool manipulation abilities in those crows. These birds show the ability to use one tool to manipulate another tool to achieve a particular task. In one study, food was stored in a hole out of reach of an easily available, but short stick. A long stick which could reach the food was kept some distance away in a toolbox. The crows quickly learnt to use the short stick to fish out the long stick from the box and then use the long stick to get at the food in the hole. In a variation of this study, researchers reversed the position of the sticks. The crows again quickly modified their behavior and directly used the long stick to get at the food.
In another interesting piece of research on scrub jay's, researchers noticed that scrub jay's bury their food from rivals and then surprisingly some scrub jay's sneak back and re-bury their food when their rivals are not present. This was seemingly being done to avoid pilfering by other birds. The shock came when controlled experiments revealed that only those scrub jays who themselves had previously stolen other scrub jay's food came back to relocate their food resources. Jay's with no previous experience of thieving did not bother re-burying their food. All this suggests that these birds have some sort of a ' theory of mind' i.e. the ability to use one's own experience to mentally time-travel and anticipate the actions of another and then use that information for manipulative purposes. This ability to sense that other individuals have thoughts and desires similar to yours was thought to be restricted only to humans, but evolution seems to have given rise to analogous abilities in some species of birds as well.
Alex's passing has generated a fair bit of press. Eulogies have ranged from the decent and serious as in this NYtimes report, to the light-hearted as in this blog. This leaves some space for dark comedy, an opportunity I don't want to miss. So in the words of Monty Python's enraged customer who tries to convince the pet-store owner that the parrot he bought from him an hour ago is really dead, a somewhat macabre goodbye to Alex:
''E's passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! This is a late parrot. 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed 'ime'd be pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! ' E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! This is an ex-parrot.