Apply to be part of our virtual math teacher institute, happening every Thursday from February 25th to March 25th. This conference will be packed with shows, panels and workshops to bring math storytelling back to the classroom. Applications are open now and are due on Friday, January 29th. This is the Moth Radio Hour from Paris, and I'm Catherine Burns, and the tweaking you're hearing right now is my white belly.
Kate Hamilton in my kitchen.
He's a small orange, green and yellow parrot. I love him. We haven't always had a great relationship.
He's more my husband's bird. And when you live in New York City, apartments are small and all pets are family pets. Hamilton is a beautiful bird and he's very friendly. He likes to lie on his back in the palm of my hand while I rub his belly.
He imitates laughter and has learned to tell from the tone of our voice that we're making a joke and laugh along with us.
But sometimes we're at odds, like most birds, he's up with the sun, and sometimes I'd like to sleep.
And when I'm working from home, as so many of us are right now, I often have to explain and assume call no, that isn't a child screaming.
That's my pet.
To give you an idea of how loud he is. Here is his daily reaction to my husband, Josh, putting him back in his cage so he can eat his breakfast.
With that in mind, welcome to this week's Our Stories about Birds.
We're going to hear about encounters with a mischievous raven, scientific adventures with the beloved African grey parrot and a flock of lesbian chickens.
First up, Raven Master Christopher Skaife live at The Moth. I am one of 37 yeomen warders commonly known as Beefeaters, that live and work within the ancient fortress, the Tower of London, right in the heart of London.
The Tower of London has a great history, but it has some ancient myths and legends, and one of the legends tells us that should the Ravens leave the Tower of London, it will crumble into dust and a great harm will befall our kingdom.
Now, we keep six Ravens at the Tower of London. By royal decree, just in case. Derek Coyle was the Raven master, and he came to me one day and he said. Chris, would you like to join my Raven team, become one of my assistants? He must have seen me watching the Ravens hopping around Tower Green and around the scaffold site and thought that I might have had some interest in them.
He said to me, Boy. He said, I think the Ravens might like you. I thought to myself, why did he call me boy? I was 40 years old at the time. To be a yeoman warder, you have to have done a minimum of twenty two years in the military with the rank of a warrant officer and have an exemplary military record.
And secondly, how did he know that the Ravens would like me? So I was quite curious.
And and he invited me to go down to the Ravens enclosure one evening and there were two massive Ravens inside the enclosure. Just to give you an example of how big a raven is, it's three and a half times the size of a large crow or the size of a small eagle and just as powerful.
And Derek said to me, I'm going to introduce you to the Ravens. Get in the cage. And so I did and I stood there not really knowing what to do, this large raven, it was massive, it was the size of a Hapi started to move towards me, shuffling its way along its perch.
It got closer and closer and closer. I could see its beady little eyes looking at me. It tilted its head to one side. I could almost feel its breath on my face.
Then Derek said, Get out.
And I did quite quickly, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, Chris said, the Ravens like you, and that is how I became part of the Raven Masters team.
He took me under his wing.
Derek Coyle taught me everything I know about Lavon's, he taught me how to clean the enclosure. He taught me how to feed the Ravens such delights as mice and rats and chicks. And he taught me how to clean the enclosure and how to clean the enclosure.
And that's really all he really taught me what to do. October 11th, 2010, it was a cold, crisp autumn morning. I was really excited, it was my first ever raven duty. My alarm went off, I got up, got out of bed, got myself dressed, made my way out of my little house, that just happens to be tucked inside the outer defensive walls of the Tower of London. Yes, I live there.
I made my way up a spiral staircase and onto Tower Green.
I stood there for a moment just absorbing the ambience of the place.
I could hear the trees, Rosalyn, and in the far distance, a siren went past a reminder that I was actually standing in an ancient fortress, but I was there in London with nine million of souls.
I looked up at the White Tower, it was wrapped in scaffolding canvas, we was doing part of a four year project of cleaning and repairing it, and this year it was the turn of the western side to be actually cleaned.
In fact, the only part of the western side that could be seen was a weather vane and a large gold crown right at the top of one of the towers for toits. However, the workmen have been making a lot of noise and the clanging of the scaffold poles in that tap, tap, tap into the stonemason's mallet was disturbing the Ravens.
So Derek decided that he wanted to move their enclosure to a quieter area around the tower. So I made my way round to the eastern side, to the temporary enclosure.
Derek had taught me how to get the Ravens up in the morning. But to be honest with you, I was still a little bit nervous around them. I looked inside the enclosure. I could see blan, he was a massive male Lavan. He didn't like humans very much. In fact, he would chase humans, visitors around the tower on the hunt for something shiny.
I once caught him pinning a small boy to the floor as a young boy was about to put his sandwich in his mouth.
That was quite difficult to to pass that on to the parents. Now, Brian's partner at the time even called Moonen.
She was the oldest and the smartest of the Ravens, like to sleep indoors at night time. We had a little shelter that she would go in. I distinctly remember Derek saying to me, Chris, do not let out. Bran and Moonen, we were doing some experimentation, we were doing a minimum wing tree policy, so what we was actually trying to do is allow the Ravens to stay at the Tower of London, but to allow them more movement around the tower and then fly a little bit.
So Derek said don't let them out.
Got that? Absolutely. I made my way towards the enclosure, unlocked the padlock.
When inside, very, very cautiously, Brian, who was sitting on the perch, stuck his head up, looked at me and with the loudest croak that he could ever make.
He sounded off and I swear to this day, folks, I swear to this day, it was a signal for an ambush, because just as he done that, Moonen flew out of a little box, struck me on the chest, slid down my body, squeezed through my legs and out of the enclosure.
I turned round.
I shut the door behind me quickly just to see Moonen starting to get higher and higher and higher. Derek had not taught me what to do if a raven was to escape. I stood there with my mouth open like a little bird waiting to be fed. It was terrible, I started to go into a form of. Paralyzed panic as I realized that she had started to get higher and higher, she was Lupino way around the white tower, the large town center, and then she disappeared off into the distance.
I spent the remainder of the morning running around getting the other Ravens out, but all the time looking around to see if I could see on the rooftops, in the trees and every corner that I thought she was hiding. But it was to no avail. She had gone she had flown the first. I carried on like my Yeoman Warder duties for the day. I didn't actually tell anybody that she had gone missing.
I was so embarrassed about it.
So I walked around the tower looking rather dejected, looking forlornly up at the towers, wondering whether she would come back. I was worried about her or she. Okay. Or she missing Bran. Who knows? It was coming towards the end of the day, we was just starting to usher out the visitors close in the tower for the evening, and it was about the time when I was going to put the other birds to bed. So I thought I'd have a walk around the tower and see if I could take one last look to see where she was.
I looked up at the White Tower. And I could see just on top of the gold crown, a small black dot. Westwind. Was that a quote? What is a raven and then I heard her croaking her sound that she normally made when she wanted to be fed.
She had come back. But she was on top of the White Tower and I needed to get her down. I waited till everybody had left the tower. I found a staircase that the workmen had been using to to carry on their works up the tower, a series of levels that was going right up on the outside of the western side of the tower.
I started to climb up them first level, second, third, fourth, eighth, ninth, tenth level. I paused for a moment. I was absolutely naked, eye opening this little crack in the canvas and looked outside.
It was very, very high. I was looking over London. It was a fantastic view. The sun was setting in the distance, but I wasn't up there for sightseeing. I had to go and save the kingdom.
I could just about make out Moonen. She was sitting on the golden crown. She was grooming herself, getting herself ready for a night's slumber. So I decided as I was getting closer to her that I would go into stealth mode.
So I started to creep along just as quietly as I possibly could. By this time, I was sweating. My uniform was covered in dust, snagging on the poles. Now I was about ten foot away from her.
Above me was a royal weather vane, a crown Moonen, and the sky below me, 150 feet was the cold, hard earth. This was it, I climbed up as far as I possibly could. My plan was to grab hold of the weathervane and perhaps have enough strength to lift myself up, grab her feet and bring her down to my chest.
I got myself ready.
I got myself in position. I grabbed the weather vane and I made a catastrophic mistake. I had forgot to take into account that a weather vane moves with the whims of the wind.
It spun me around in a northeasterly direction.
I remember watching the sky turning around like water, going down a wall about a world, Paul and Moon flying off into the distance of the setting sun, I felt very stupid.
I slid back down onto to that platform, I sat there for a moment contemplating life, thinking to myself, what a stupid move to do.
I had let down by myself, I had let down the tower, I had let down her Majesty the Queen, but more importantly than that, I had let down Derek and he was going to be absolutely furious with me.
So the climb down the White Tower that day was a long climb down. The following day, I had to explain to Derek that I'd lost one of his prized Ravens. She was 19 years old. She'd been with the tower all that time.
He cared for her and looked after her. He never spoke to me very much. He just gave me that look. For seven days, I avoided him like the plague until one day, one day we got a phone call from a man, a gentleman in Greenwich, who said that he'd seen a raven in his back garden and he believe that this raven belonged to her majesty the queen. He caught it, he put some chicken in his back garden and he got a blanket and it over this way even gave it up this raven and put it in a bag.
And when I raced to his house and got there, this little Raven's head was just poking out the bag. A member of the public had saved the kingdom, we bought Moon and back under close arrest. She spent many, many happy years at the Tower of London and I learned a really interesting lesson.
I learned never to trust a raven because believe it or not, ladies and gentlemen, they are much more smarter than us nowadays. I am the raven master at the Tower of London and I look after our magnificent Ravens. We have six there by royal decree.
And as the country at the moment is a little bit dodgy, I've got two extra just in case. But I do allow the Ravens to have some movement around the tower and as a result of what took place then and me knowing that she had actually came back to the tower, I now allow the Ravens to order the Ravens at the Tower of London to be in full flight. So if you ever come to the Tower of London and you do see the Ravens don't just look on the ground anymore, look up into the treetops and on the spires, and that is where you will find our Ravens.
Thank you very much indeed.
Christopher Skase is the author of The Raven Master My Life with the Ravens, The Tower of London, a book I highly recommend.
The night before a London show, I visited the Tower of London with my fellow MOTHE director, Chloe Samin. It was near closing time, and as thousands of tourists were streaming out of the tower, Chris opened the gate for us and said, Welcome to my home.
We spent the next two hours with him and the now empty tower watching as he put the Ravens to bed at night.
Come on, let's go see the birdies. Uniform in the uniform. So this one since 1858. And we do have another uniform, which is our red ceremonial uniform that can be found on gin bottles, the Beefeater gin bottles, and that dates back to a period of of King Henry the 8th and King Henry the eighth designed it for us. I don't know what he was thinking when he decided to put me in tights and a rough. But he did.
And so but it's quite uncomfortable. And the reason actually why the uniform changed to a darker uniform is during the Victorian period, there was an awful lot of pollution from the factories around here and it was making our bright red uniforms. They stained and they were very expensive. And so they changed them to a darker uniform to hide the dirt.
We stood in a small, chilly stone room tucked into the tower while watching them prepare their food.
So I'm just defrosting some lamb's hearts. And that is what tomorrow is going to feed this one, these two chicks. I mean, we go round the back and see from the other side as well where the public don't actually go. So the two over there is Aaron and Rocky then, too, that is grip and harass the little monkey. And there is Poppy. And that one is Jubilee to because Jubilee one was by Fox, which is a bit embarrassing.
Chris, explain why there's a large pile of glove sitting next to the Ravens enclosure. This is a collection at the moment of Pompey's gloves that she steals from people who make it's just loads and loads of clothes.
And he gave me a now treasured gift, a feather of their fallen out of one of the Ravens that day.
Sometimes I give a primary in a secondary Pfeiffer and primary in second service. They work together in flight and one gives the bird strengthen, the other one gives it manoeuvre. And I sometimes give them on such a sentimental person to people who are about to get married so that they have to stay together for life.
There you see. Yeah, they, they are incredibly intelligent. One of the smartest person in the world. There have been scientists around the country and around the world actually that suggest that Ravens are favored apes. So there are suggestions that Ravens are as clever as primates. The reason why the Ravens are actually probably brought into the Tower of London was during the period of the 80s, there was an execution site that needed to be memorialized. Queen Victoria said that she wanted us to commemorate those who lost their lives here.
And we was going through a period of Gothic revivalism. And as a result of that, and people like Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens were making Ravens' quite fashionable and Ravens have been associated with death and dying for long, long periods of time throughout history. And so what better way to encourage visitors into the Tower of London than to trim up a few birds, fly Pfeifer's ravens, fly feathers, stand them around the execution site and say, look, these are the lost souls of the dearly departed.
And that's brilliant bit of marketing by the tower.
To see photos and videos of Chris snuggling with his Ravens, go to the MCG. Coming up, a woman in Detroit decides to raise chickens in her backyard and things go afoul. That's when the Moth Radio Hour continues.
The Moth Radio Hour is produced by Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and presented by PRICK'S. This is the Moth Radio Hour from Prick's, I'm Catherine Burns. In this show, we're hearing all about birds. And our next story was recorded at the Alabama Shakespeare in Montgomery for we partner with Troy Public Radio. Here's Game Wilbourne live at the mall. So. My wife is an organic water kind of person, like free range, organic, fair trade, small batch, single owner, you know, whatever the buzz words are, whatever we buy has to cover all of those things.
She likes to hike. She likes to fish.
She comes from what we call the thumb, you know, because we're a mitten. So she comes from the thumb area in Michigan.
And I will admit it was a bit of a jerk move when I moved her from that forest to Detroit.
Now, so there you know, when you're married, you get into a lot of conversation. So her first conversation with me was that she's like, I really don't know if I can live here because there is no grocery stores. And I said there are plenty of grocery stores. They just sell socks.
And then she said, well, I need a grocery store that sells groceries and not socks.
And I said, well, then, you know, this might have been a mistake. So then she said, well, what I really want is fresh eggs. And I said, oh, that's no problem. They have eggs, whether the keep the socks.
And she said, but that's not those aren't fresh eggs. And so we got into this long conversation really about socks because we're married and we ventured off.
But you know how when you've been married a long time, they look back. The men in here know what I'm talking about, your wife, I just loop back on you like we this is three weeks ago and all of a sudden we're back at this again. So she loop back on me and said, yeah, I think I have a solution for the fresh egg problem. I said, well, I love to hear that. And she said, I think we should raise chickens.
And I said, OK, so I'm OK now I need you to help me with this chicken thing, because if you want me to hunt somebody down, if you want me to pull somebody to the side and have a personal and private conversation with them, if you want me to burn down a house and collect the insurance money, I'm a Detroiter.
These are skills I have, OK? I don't know how this chicken thing works. And she says, well, you get a bunch of chickens and you feed them and then you eat eggs.
I'm like, OK, I did go to a private school. I got that part. But how do we get the chickens? I mean, do we go to the grocery store and buy eggs and wait? Like, what do we do?
And she said, no, you can go to a farmer and pick them up as as chicks and then bring them home and for whatever reason I said, OK, now I think the real reason was secretly I wanted to raise my own chickens and stick it to the man.
That was my secret. So we go to this farmer to get these chickens. Now, my wife went on, she did a lot of research was she went on Wikipedia and she used the Google.
So the Google and Wikipedia told her there's all kinds of chickens and I didn't know this. Their chickens that are good for laying eggs or chickens that make delicious soup, there's chickens that are so pretty you don't touch them.
I didn't even know that. So she says to me, what we're going to get is Buff Orpington. And I love that name because it sounds like a frat guy.
Right. Hi, I'm Beth Orpington. You know, I love it. I love this. You know, you want to see my mom's Mercedes now.
So we find a farmer in Bellville, Michigan, which is about most people who have never been to Michigan to understand in Detroit. And it's a city, but you're probably 15 to 20 minutes away from farmland at any given minute. So we get outside the city and we get these birds.
Now we're at the farmers.
And the idea is to get five chickens. Pretty sure we don't know what we're doing.
We're expecting three to just die just because we don't know we're doing so.
We figure we're going to kill three in general and that'll leave us with two and two's enough.
So we get there and we're picking out these chicks and these cute little blonde chicks and they're making these Peping sounds and they're so cute. But I have this moment because I was raised in Detroit in the 70s and 80s when it mattered.
And I am, you know, power to the people, my people. Black is beautiful. So I'm looking at these. I'm like, I'm raising all these white birds in my backyard in Detroit.
That seems insane. So I look in these chicks and they have black chicks. I didn't know they were black chickens. I didn't know. So I see this little black chick and I'm like, Yeah.
We can get them a little blonde chicks if you want to, but are we going to get one black chick? Right? So the farmer gives us five buff Orpington and a Plymouth Baade Rock.
Now it's time to outfit. Their warm space. So for those of you who don't know now I've got to buy heating lamps and buying heating lamps. My wife is building all this weird construction in the middle of the living room and we're buying organic feed and it's costing lots of money. And I'm unprepared to be a farmer because I showed up at the tractor supply company in a Honda Element.
The guy at the cash register looked at me, looked at my car and said, what are y'all doing? And I said, we are raising chickens.
So we get him home and we get them all set up. And only people who are really interested in the chickens are the cats. The cats are like, oh, look, Meals on Wheels, and once we calm them down, we are now chicken parents. Now it took a minute for them to stop looking like brooms that nobody cleaned and it started actually being birds.
So we finally moved them outside and my wife bills them a chicken coop.
Another way that you know, that we're unprepared to be chicken farmers is that my wife built their coop out of butcher block from IKEA.
Their entire coop was built from the scraps section at IKEA. Their house was better than a house we were living in. So they're outside.
And here's you know, there's a couple of things that I don't know if you know, so I'm going to share them. No. One, chickens lay one egg a day, six days, and then they cycle.
They take a day off.
Now, that's fine, unless you have six chickens and I don't know about you, but you can't give the eggs to the neighbors because the neighbors go from. Oh, thank you for the eggs. Yo, where's my eggs? Like a week and no one wants to deal with that. So we are now eating eggs with everything. I'm eating hard boiled eggs like Oreos.
People are coming to the house and it's like, would you like a cup of tea and possibly an egg? Would you like a piece of pizza? Here's your pizza and egg like we're we are eating more eggs than we can shake a stick. And now that anything, it was easily a problem.
But then the birds became a little too much to handle. And the day we knew they were too much to handle turned out to be a Sunday.
Now I wake up to this sound.
And I say to my wife, what the hell was that?
Here's something else they don't teach you on the Wikipedia.
Chickens are natural lesbian's if there is no rooster around one of them, a bunch up on you. So I look out into the backyard and on top of the IKEA chicken coop, who's up there calling that design, that's just about.
The book Orpington, are you just having their own chicken time and that girl is up there just trying to just trying to bring the party. And that's when I looked at my wife and said we got to get rid of them, we can't we can't keep them now, my wife was concerned that we were going to somehow get arrested or get a ticket.
And I informed her that we were in Detroit, in the Detroit Police Department, had a bigger fish to fry that like we didn't make the list of the things the Detroit Police Department had on their plate, but she was still concerned and Natasha wasn't getting quieter.
So I found a woman north of the city who had her own flock of chickens and we moved them.
Here's another thing you need to know. It's easier to move chickens when they're asleep. We didn't do that. I just found it, it was easier. Six fully awake chickens and a dog kennel in the back of an element going down a road, that was easily a mistake.
But we get to this woman's farm and we release our chickens into her flock. So a couple of things that we noticed. Number one, our chickens were huge because my wife let them eat whatever they wanted.
Also, my chickens, our chickens were a little weird because my wife decided that since they didn't have a mother, she would teach them how to scratch the ground and dig up worms. And the way they scratch the ground looked a lot like the way my wife scratched the ground, but nothing at all the way a chicken scratches the ground.
So we drop them off.
And about two days later, the woman who has the flock calls us and says, what is the deal with these birds?
And we said, well, whatever do you mean? And she said, When I go for coffee in the morning, they come up on the porch and sit with me.
I said, well, they used to do that with my wife while she was teaching them how to scratch for worms. And lady just hung up on me. Thank you. Dave Wilburn is a storyteller and artist, she's the chief marketing director for Twisted Willow Soap Company and host of the podcast games Eclectic Brain during the pandemic game. And her wife became chicken owners once again to see a photo of game and one of her newest chickens waffles go to the moth dog.
While there, you can call our pitch line and leave us a two minute version of a story you'd like to tell.
Do you have a story about a bird or a cat or another animal? Please call us up and tell us about it. The number to call is 877 seven nine nine MOTHE. Or you can pick up your own story at the Moth Dog.
Coming up, a scientist recounts her life with a very special parrot named Alex. That's when the Moth Radio Hour continues.
Boom, boom, boom. The Moth Radio Hour is produced by Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and presented by the Public Radio Exchange PUREX Doug.
This is the Moth Radio Hour from Pyrex. I'm Catherine Burns. Up next, the last in this hour of bird stories. It was recorded more than 10 years ago in New York.
Here's Irene Pepperberg live at the moment. So it's 1970s and I'm getting my doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Harvard and I'm watching NOVA programs on this groundbreaking work on training animals to communicate with humans, work on signing chimps and dolphin studies.
And I decide that's it. I've had this epiphany.
I'm going to change my whole field and do this work and I'm going to do it with a parrot and or parents talk.
They live for a long time. I thought this was the most incredible idea in the world that I'd be part of this this revolution.
I finished the degree. I study up everything I can in the field. I write my grant proposal. I submit it thinking yes and no. The reviewers come back asking me what I'm smoking.
The last time parrots and humans were connected, unlike apes, where we're connected, you know, pretty closely genetically 280 million years ago. All right.
You know, big, big difference parrots. Unlike dolphins, they have these little tiny brain the size of a shelled walnut. You know, dolphins have this big brain make sense to work with them, not with a parrot. Plus, I'm working with an animal that's a pet, you know? I mean, how am I going to keep my scientific objectivity there?
And plus, I'm not going to use the standard scientific techniques of the day, which means starve your animal to 80 percent of its normal body weight, stick in a Skinner box and go from there. No, no. I'm going to just talk to the bird. Yeah, right. But I'm really determined.
I go out and I buy a parrot. It's a great parrot. That's the name of the species and the color. He's a gray. Different shades of gray. Bright red tail weighs about this big weighs about a pound.
I named him Alex for Avian Learning Experiment.
And so I start training him by giving it modeling system. He's learning a couple labels and I put in the grant proposal and this time I'm really lucky.
I have somebody on the panel who studies Birdsong who recognizes the striking parallels between the development of vocal communication in birds and humans.
So I get a grant for a year and it was quite a roller coaster of a life.
But at the beginning we started this work and in Alex's first 10 years, he learned about at about 50 labels for objects. He learned to labels seven colors. He learned to label five shapes two, three, four, five and six cornered.
He labeled different materials. He understood concepts so I could show him the object. And I say, Alex, you know, what's this? And he'd say, Block.
And he's Goodbody. And what color? Blue and Gameboy and what shape? Four corner. And what matter would.
And he combined these labels so he could identify 150 different things. This is a parrot brain size of shelled walnut could label about 150 different things. He learned concepts of bigger and smaller so I could jump to things and say, what's color bigger, what color smaller? And he tell me he learned and this was really extraordinary concept of same in different. So I could show him two things and not just tell me that they were same or different, but he could tell me what about them was same or different.
So say what say I mean he tell me color, shape, matter or none if nothing were same or different. And this was pretty exciting work. And again, Alex was about 10 years old and I'm invited to the international primate to logical Congress.
This is a big deal.
International Congress, I'm speaking in front of a thousand people and I'm the only person there who is not a primatologist. I am the one person who has been invited to talk on comparative behavior.
And I'm talking about a bird again, sized brain size of shelled walnut to all these people are working with apes and orangutans and whatever.
So I get up and I give my talk. And at the end of my talk, one of the we call him the silverback males, one of the.
One of the senior, you know, senior primatologist gets up and I'm going, OK, here it comes, you know, I'm just going to get totally creamed.
And he, you know, well, you know, very, very, very interesting little study you did there. But you mean to tell me that your bird did something much more complicated than premix apes? And I want to say, yeah, and backwards and in heels.
You know, to be honest now I say no and I smile, say no, sir.
You know? That's right, sir. He did. And and I'm thinking, OK. And he says, oh, and he sits down and I'm going, oh, I've done it.
I've made it, you know. Yeah. But a couple of weeks earlier had gotten this letter from National Science Foundation saying, you know, what does a nice proposal, but we ran out of money, so no more funding.
So I'm sitting there going, OK, how are we going to keep the lab going at this point? So we fast forward a little bit. And it was still very hard for me to get some recognition from colleagues. Even with these successes, there was always the question of scientific objectivity, and I dealt with it by treating Alex like a colleague and the way I would treat my students. You know, you work with them, you teach them as much as you can, you respect them, but you do draw a line between the way you interact with them and the way you interact with your own children or the way you'd interact with your significant others to keep that scientific objectivity.
And but, you know, we're doing OK. And and again, by this time, we're doing a lot of publicity. We're doing Scientific American Frontiers and Discovery Channel and 48 Hours. And Alex is about 15. And we get a invitation to do radio from the BBC. And by this time, Alex, his personality is really coming to a four because he's learned not just to answer questions, but to label and to interact and ask me questions.
And so now I'm thinking radio. You know, I could ask him anything and I could say, yes, good boy. Because, you know, they can't see what's going on.
So I think. All right, how am I going to do this? OK, so I start the program. I say, OK, I'm holding an orange square piece of wood and I'm going to ask Alex some questions.
So you hear my heels click a click as I go into the room and I go, Alex, going to ask you some questions.
I'm going to do some work. And I go, Alex, what color? A little birdie voice. No, you tell me what shape.
OK, Alex, it's it's four corner neck. Can you tell me what color. Tell me what matter. OK, Alex, it's one. Can you tell me what color. Know how many.
Alex there's one toy here and you know, part of me again is going, oh, this is so cool. He's not just acting like a little robot. I mean, he's interacting with me. He's talking with me. The other part of me is going. But they really want to hear him answer some questions. Some guy. Alex, come on.
What color? And he goes, No, tell me what shape and I got. OK, Alex, time out.
You're misbehaving and you hear my heels as I start to walk out the door giving him a time out. And then comes a little birdie voice.
I'm sorry. Come here, Orange.
So obviously, I treated Alex like a colleague, but he didn't necessarily treat me like a colleague, we got a gig at the Media Lab at MIT big time.
I'm hired for temporary position that could be extended to do use the bird as a model for intelligent learning systems.
But once I'm there and I start looking at all the gizmos and whatever they have, I start developing for the sponsors animal human communication systems to enrich the birds lives. All these animals, intrepid explorer web browsers for parents, things like that.
And those of you who know the Media Lab know that the sponsors who have given us all this money to do these things come twice a year to see what we've done with their money.
Well, word had gotten out that there was a live bird and they wanted to see Alex and they come through in waves five to seven minutes.
What we were doing was showing him refrigerator letters, the things you show your kids to have him sound out the letters in the hope that somewhere down the road he'd be able to like we could put the letters together and he could maybe send out a label to see if he understood what these sounds meant. OK, so but he's at this very early stage and the task at this point, we put all the letters on a tray. There are different colors.
And, you know, we ask Alex what color is, you know.
And he goes Blue Goodbody one and that. OK, Alex, you can't have enough.
We've only got these people for five minutes. You know, let's do another thing, OK?
You know what sound is green S.H. Good Goodbody. One minute. Wait, wait.
So we do this several times and each time he's getting more and more upset because he's not getting his reward.
And finally, after about four or five times he looks at me, goes one nut and a two.
And in typical Alex, he's telling me stupid, do I have to spell it for you? But the other part of it is, you know, I'm thinking he's got light years ahead of us because we're on the trail. But I was not. So he had figured out himself how to split the words apart into the sounds and use them.
So again, again, after all of these high points, you know, the Media Lab gig falls apart. I'm actually on unemployment for a while.
I get a Radclyffe fellowship to help things through.
But to to keep the lab going.
I'm going to bird clubs every other weekend to literally to raise money, have to raise 100000 dollars a year to keep the lab going. And it's getting more and more crazy. And we're trying to figure out what's going on. And my colleagues at Harvard have this great idea that Alex has been so interactive and fun. Maybe we should start looking at how he sees the world literally. Can he do optical illusions? So we put together a grant and of course, it's rejected.
The first time we fix it up, we resubmit it. And it's September 2000 and 2001. A little bit later that week, I'm sitting at my desk eating breakfast, which I do. Emails are coming in from Europe and Japan and one comes in from Europe. I talk has been funded.
Yeah, OK. It's a big European consortium, millions of euros coming through for this.
I'm a consultant. No real money, but they send me to Europe once a year to use Alex as a model for intelligent learning systems. And I'm thinking again, yes. Justification of our work.
We're on an upswing. I'm so excited. I get a second cup of coffee, sit down and there's another email with the tag.
Sad news from the head that at Brandeis where the birds are and I opened this email, but it's not exactly bad attack except that one found a dead parrot in the back left hand corner of the room.
And I freeze and I'm going, this, this this is not true. It can't be. I mean, this is this is a nightmare, right? I'm going to wake up, but I call Brandeis's. And no, Alex has passed in the night. And I go in to complete shock because because this is a bird.
He's now 30 years old. We're supposed to have another 20 years here. And I can't believe it.
I mean, obviously, I'm not functioning. I kept a diary, but I.
I can you know, it's hard to even talk about it now, but so over the weekend, friends come up, they drive from Washington to be there with me to make sure I'm fed to roll me into bed so I won't sleep.
But to get some rest, other friends locally are taking care of me to make my board of directors from the foundation sets up an obituary because I can't I mean, I'm just totally out of it.
I'm like walking into walls. And Monday morning comes and I call the Brandeis PR folks, the folks I've been working with for all these years, because every time Alex has done something cool, the media would pick up on it.
And we do some interviews.
So by the time so I call them and lower my friend there, says Raino, I'll let I'll put this out. But, you know, this is a bird. I mean, it's not going to get any traction, but I'll put it out. I say, fine, whatever.
And by the time I drive the 40 minutes from my house to to Brandeis, my cell phone is ringing off the hook. My lab manager, cell phones are ringing off the hook. The lab is phone is ringing off the hook.
We're being asked for interviews all over the world. And I'm, you know, interview mode I can handle. I've done this for years. Pick up phone, you know, close eyes, answer questions as they come, hang up phone, take the next interview, find that I can deal with. And I'm doing this for a week. Meanwhile, emails are pouring in three thousand to my own account.
Boxes and boxes of letters are coming from people all over the world.
Alex gets three articles in the New York Times, an obituary in The Economist.
I mean, you know. Yeah, and I'm still in total shock. It's just nothing's coming through.
And finally, I get this this big box of letters, but there's a little box inside and I open it up and it's from grade school class.
And the week before Alex died, the teacher had brought her gray parrot into the classroom to teach them about animal intelligence and conservation issues. And when the kids learned about Alex's death, they said they all wanted to write sympathy notes.
So they all drew pictures of Alex and then little notes to me. And I'm opening one of these and it's from a little boy. And he says, I know how you feel. My grandma died this summer and someday your heart will heal.
And that's when this this all these barriers that I had put up to keep Alex on the other side of my emotions so I could do the science, it came through that there wasn't going to be any more science. Alex was gone and all these emotions broke through.
And I realized I had lost the most important being in my life. Irene Pepperberg is the president of the Alex Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to avian intelligence and conservation. She's been a research associate and lecturer at Harvard, where she studied the cognitive abilities of grey parrots. She has published over 100 articles in peer reviewed journals and is the author of the book The Alex Studies and Alex and Me to see photos of Irene and Alex, as well as a video of my parrot Hamilton accidently doing a front row off our bed.
Go to the moth dog. Hey, Hamilton, the bird hour is over, you want to say goodbye? That's it for this episode. So we hope you'll join us next time. And that's the bird story from The Moth.
Your host for this hour was the Moth's artistic director, Catherine Burns, who also directed the stories in the show.
The rest of the moth's directorial staff include Sara Habermann, Sara Austin Ginés, Jennifer Hickson and Meg Bowles production support from Emily Couch and Chloe Samen. Special thanks to Kyle Gased Carol Anne Hutchison and Rick Del Dyne.
More stories are true, is remembered and affirmed by the storytellers. Our theme music by the drift.
Other music in this hour from Blue Note sessions. So Eigen Symphony at Lewis Hardan, Moondog Khaleq Milstead and Dan Rather.
The Moth is produced for Radio by me Jay Allison with Viki Merrick at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. This hour was produced with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts. Moth Radio Hour is presented by the Public Radio Exchange program. For more about our podcast.
For information on pitching us your own story and everything else, go to our Web site them off big.