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The Parrot Within

By Stewart Metz, M.D.

Photographs © Stewart Metz

I was asked to write a short article by a lady whose seven parrots sadly disappeared into the parrot mill (alluded to below) under false pretenses. She was having difficulty explaining to people unfamiliar with parrots why the fate of her beloved birds (at least three of whom had died) still haunted her, and so she asked me to write about the often-unappreciated needs of captive parrots. The following is the result.

Invisible Parrots

Parrots are everywhere. Almost every advertisement for an exotic island paradise features one. They are in detective shows and beer advertisements and the names of groupies of rock’ n’ roll acts. Everyone “loves” parrots. They make us laugh in a comical way, somewhat as penguins do. In addition, they are incontrovertibly beautiful.

Like rainbows, some of them sport blues and greens and reds and yellows, rarely failing to make the observer gasp. And they talk (although the birds in television advertisements almost always feature dubbed-in human voices, mimicking cute phrases of no profound thought). And since parrots are the third commonest animals in US households, we assume that they are domesticated pets and can be treated as such.

Little of this, unfortunately, is really relevant to what defines a “parrot”. This fundamental distinction, between the “Outer Parrot” and the “Inner Parrot”, has, in part, permitted these creatures - that we claim to “love” so much - to endure a tremendous amount of suffering. Like so much that is rare, beautiful, and expensive, we covet them and want to possess them, even if by doing so we must lock them away and thus threaten their very parrot-ness.

The reality is, we often fail to learn what it is that makes up the Parrot Within. All too often, we are “parrot- blind,” and they become Invisible Parrots. The parrots, sadly, pay the price for being one of the most charismatic - and most intelligent and sensitive - families of animals on earth.

In reality, the parrots in our homes are only a few generations removed from the wild. The forests of South and Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia largely provided the stock from which most companion parrots have been bred over the past 30 or so years. Therefore, they are (with the possible exception of budgerigars, cockatiels, and Peach-faced Lovebirds) still undomesticated, wild, and internationally-protected animals, with the needs of wild animals still genetically ‘hard-wired’ inside them.

This stands in stark contrast to dogs and cats, which have been bred for centuries to be house pets. This distinction means that parrots are, literally, “strangers in a new land” when we stick them in cages and expect them to behave the way we want. They will not be happy and will attempt to tell us so (for example, by screaming, chewing on prized possessions, or throwing food), which is likely, in turn, to make us unhappy unless we learn the best ways to accommodate their needs.

Sadly, instead, the response of a few (but far too many) bird owners has been to respond by punishing their parrots - by locking them away, striking them or abandoning them. You might be amazed how many parrots have been stuck in a dark closet or garage for 10-15 years, with nothing to do, just for squawking. Screaming, of course, is a normal daily behavior of parrots, something their owners should have expected, had they done their homework before bringing home an essentially-wild creature.

Parenthetically, the genetically-determined needs of a parrot do not change just because one calls it a “breeder bird”. That parrot does not know whether it is a “companion bird” or a “breeder bird”. It just knows that it has certain unalienable needs, including fresh water; clean and nourishing food; safety from predators (which in the home means US!); exercise; fresh air; sunlight and the like. It is merely a convenient rationalization to deny a parrot these things and claim, “Well, he’s just a breeder bird; we treat them differently.”

The Parrot Within

If you are fortunate enough, as I have been, to see parrots in the wild, you will see wondrous creatures which are quite different, and far more spectacular, than those you see in cages in homes. They fly, of course, many miles a day, which actually enhances their beauty, because it is during flight that some of the most beautiful colors under their wings are revealed to potential mates. And during this flight, parrots are stimulated by everything they see, even more than we would be, because they can see the rays of the sun’s light into the ultraviolet spectrum. They may forage, looking for food, for up to 4-5 hours a day, which keeps their mental acuity and curiosity sharp. That food (which is all natural, of course) is quickly burned up during flying and climbing .

Chewing on branches keeps their beaks trim - after all, beaks are not used foremost for opening foods but for balance and climbing. (If one watches a parrot climbing in a cage, it always grasps the cage bar or perch with its beak first. The beak acts as a ‘third limb’.). They require regular bathing to keep their feathers intact.

The large parrots raise baby birds usually only once or twice a year-and of course Mom and Dad raise them until they fledge. In some cases, the young parrot may stay with its parents for over a year, learning how to be a parrot. And a parrot’s day includes plenty of play and socialization. So when the parrot greets each day in the wild with a few squawks, it marks their exuberance and joie de vivre- - it is not something that one would want to suppress.

Many of these things are minimized, or lost of necessity, in the facilities of the best of breeders, and in many homes of good companion parrot owners. Few of us have the money or space, in a place having good climate, to put all of our parrots into a flight aviary. On the other hand, that is no excuse for not providing, or trying to mimic, as many of these requirements as possible.

More and more breeders are letting the parents raise their chicks part of the time, so that they can grow to be better socialized and more confident youngsters, who are less likely to develop behavioral problems later, which in turn decreases the chances of later abuse in the home. Better treatment in the home reduces “acting out” and the chance of that parrot being passed from home to home and eventually living out its life in a sanctuary…or worse.

“Bird-brain”- now a term of distinction!

We know from recent studies, that birds are far more intelligent than previously thought - and that parrots (along with the crow and jay group) lead the way in this regard. The gray matter of our brains is highly folded into what are called “gyri”, so that it can fit into our skulls - a sign of a high level of intelligence. Since parrots and other birds lack gyri and (seemingly) other structures central to intelligence and feelings, it was long assumed that they were “lower” animals.

In 2005, however, a consortium of the most respected neuroanatomists in the world dispelled that myth. After six years of study, they concluded that “many birds have cognitive proficiencies that are quite sophisticated, and some birds…have cognitive proficiencies that clearly exceed all other birds…”  Andrew Iwaniuk, a researcher at the University of Alberta, found that parrots have larger brains than most other birds, and that (corrected for total body size) ranked with chimps and gorillas. More important, in some behavioral tasks, they performed at the level of two-to-three-year old human children, and outperformed non-human primates.

Parrots share another critical intellectual trait with humans - intense curiosity - something which is of great pertinence to the circumscribed lifestyle they are afforded - even under the best of circumstances - in captivity. This trait, curiosity, goes hand-in-hand with their playfulness and exuberance, both of which are manifest in the wild. Even veterinarians tell us, when defining the health of a parrot, to first look for the normal glow in its eye! One can witness these behaviors in the home, like the analogous traits in human toddlers, but only if one earns the trust to let those lights shine through.

Other human-like traits of psittacines are the ability to use tools (such as by the Kea or Palm Cockatoo), the ability of many parrots to pick up and hold objects with their feet, in a fashion reminiscent of our use of an opposable thumb, and the feature of standing, even walking upright.

Recent detailed studies in individual parrots have begun to unmask the true depth of the intellectual capabilities of parrots. First and foremost, there are the studies by Dr Irene Pepperberg, of Alex, the famous (and sadly now deceased) African Grey, and of her other parrots. Dr Pepperberg is a psychologist who studied thought processes and communication with Alex for over two decades. Books have been written about her astonishing results, but, suffice it to say here, Alex was able (among other tasks) to identify colors, textures, and shapes; could use numbers, and seemed capable of various types of complex, even abstract thought. (see: I. M. Pepperberg The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots, Harvard University Press,1999).

Another African Grey, named N’Kisi, is said to have a vocabulary of 950 human words, and is alleged to invent his own words and phrases to meet new concepts - as a human child does, or as non-human primates have recently been shown capable of doing. It appears that parrots do not always merely “parrot” words - they are capable of using them for some degree, however limited, of inter-species communication. This doesn’t mean that parrots will carry on spoken conversations with their caregivers, but that they are capable of such high intellectual tasks as learning at least small portions of the language of an entirely other species (are you?). Should we treat such creatures like little breeding factories, for profit? Some do, as I will discuss below.

Do all parrots act with such plasticity and intelligence? Not as far as we know. But the point is that it is reasonable to conclude that many parrots might have that capability. And many more parrots, perhaps the overwhelming majority, demonstrate a bond with their caregiver which involves a remarkable degree of inter-species sentience and communication which, even when words are not involved, takes place through behaviors, calls, clicks, whistles, body language, and other signals easily recognizable by the attuned caregiver. Such an interaction will become evident only provided that elements of both trust and receptivity are evident.

As a physician and biomedical scientist for 35 years, I recognize that studies of the intelligence, no less of the feelings, of non-human animals are still in their infancy, and that there are scientists who are skeptical of some of the conclusions which I have cited. However, if, by our “usual” treatment of parrots, we are, in fact, suppressing both their intelligence and emotions - as a reasonable body of extant evidence now suggests – then, in my opinion, we are imposing a form of psychological abuse by the suppression of cognitive function.

Therefore, it seems to me that, in the current ethical context, the onus is no longer upon scientists to further prove that parrots think and feel. Rather, the burden lies now upon those who would choose to dispute the findings and their ethical ramifications, and thereby turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of these animals, to disprove these conclusions.

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