West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 23 | November. 07 -13 2007

Animals

Nancy Chambers with feathered friends.

Bird lover fundraises for parrot research project

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

Alex was no ordinary parrot. The African Grey showed the emotional equivalent of a 2-year-old child and the intellectual equivalent of a 5-year-old. He knew colors and shapes, numbers up to six and more than 100 words. He understood the concept of zero and could serve up zany one-liners.

Alex died on Sept. 6 at the age of 31, about middle-aged for a parrot. The cause of death was sudden heart failure and his final words were “I love you,” said his owner, Dr. Irene Pepperberg.

“Alex was the top of the top,” said Nancy Chambers, who met Alex a year and a half ago. As former owner of the Urban Bird store, Chambers has seen a lot of birds in her day.

“It is hard for people who don’t have parrots to understand,” Chambers said. “They are like small feathered humans.”

Since Urban Bird on Bleecker St. closed in 2002, Chambers has devoted her time to fundraising for the Alex Foundation, which studies avian cognition with an eye toward treating human autism.

The foundation expands on the work Pepperberg pioneered with Alex. Pepperberg, a psychologist at Brandeis University and Harvard, used a teaching method based on the rival-model technique, where a human would compete with Alex to give the correct answer to Pepperberg’s questions.

Pepperberg’s research has implications for teaching autistic children. Using the model-rival technique and its reliance on group belonging, autistic children were able to learn skills in social interaction.

Chambers met Pepperberg at an ornithological convention at which they were both speakers. Since Chambers began fundraising for the Alex Foundation two years ago, she has helped raise about $70,000.

Despite Chambers’s involvement with the Alex Foundation, she does not employ Pepperberg’s techniques to train her birds.

“I don’t spend my time teaching my birds. They teach me,” said Chambers, who lives in Battery Park City and can often be seen around the neighborhood with various combinations of her five parrots, three of which are African Greys.

Chambers has owned birds since 1984, when watching birds fly around from the back deck of a Fire Island summer rental inspired her to want them in her life. When she returned to the city, Chambers went to Bird Jungle on Christopher St. and got her first parrot.

Seven years later, Chambers opened Urban Bird in Tribeca. Urban Bird was the only licensed bird breeding facility in New York City. Over the years, the store sold hundreds of birds and raised more than 100 incubator-hatched macaws.

“The babies you raise think they are little people,” said Chambers. “People don’t realize how time consuming and expensive it is to raise birds. You really have to be on call 24/7. For the first few weeks of their life, the babies need to be fed every two hours around the clock.”
In 2000, the store moved to the Village, but after Sept. 11, 2001, Chambers found it difficult to continue.

“We hung on for a year after 9/11, but business was very much affected,” said Chambers. “People stopped buying birds and started buying puppies. It’s a psychological thing, but people didn’t realize that birds are just as affectionate.”

Chambers has been instrumental in organizing a memorial tribute to Alex, which will be held on Nov.15. Bob Huran, a folksinger and Tribeca resident, will sing “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” which is the foundation’s theme song.

The tribute, which is by invitation, is also a fundraiser for the foundation and has a suggested donation of $250. Donations will go toward furthering the foundation’s efforts.

“The tribute will be very sad,” said Chambers. “It will be very moving for those of us who were affected by Alex to gather together and remember him.”


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