Unlike cats and dogs, parrots are still wild animals. Although the CITES treaties have all but eliminated the export of wild birds, even now, few parrots are more than three or four generations removed from the wild. That fact alone means that getting a bird to accept you is very different from training most domestic animals. You don’t tame a parrot, or enforce more than temporary obedience. Rather, you reach a point where a bird decides to trust you.
My first experience with such trust came with Ning, our first bird. I had been training him to step up on a stick and my hand, and he was learning, but it was a matter of persistence on my part more than anything else. To any unabused parrot, status is always negotiable, and, while Ning obeyed, nips to show his distaste for the exercise were not exactly unknown.
Then, one night, I was lying on the couch with Ning on my hand, when he suddenly looked as though he had made a decision and started waddling determinedly up my arm. Although Ning is a nanday conure, and not the largest of parrots, I was nervous as he touched the side of my head with his beak — as Diana Paxson once said to me, anybody with a five hundred drill press on their face automatically commands respect.
But instead of attacking me, he started delicately preening my sideburns. He spent the next twenty minutes on that side of my head, then moved on to the back. At one point, he paused to give me a desperate look, as if to say he hadn’t realized how large I was, but he kept on before giving up halfway through the second side of my head
The next night, he did it again. The night after that, when he was finished with me, he marched along the back of the couch to Trish and did the same to her. That’s when I knew that we were solid.
Since then, I’ve experience the first preen from a parrot many times. At times, it is a delicate preen of the eyelids, as it was with Sophy, the only bird I trust to do that. At others, as with poor abused Jabberwock, it was a gentle preening of my forelock, followed by sitting, nose to beak for minutes at a time. With fledglings, it’s combined with the strangely boneless slump of a content and perfectly trusting parrot. Last year, the first preen came from Beaudin, our latest rescue.
The whole experience is very much like earning the trust of a two year old child — and, if you think that sentimental, take a moment to search out Irene Pepperberg’s work with African Grays like Alex: parrots really do have the intelligence of a young child, and that clearly makes them sentient beings.
Perhaps that is what makes the trust of a parrot so special to me. Far more than with a dog or a cat – who are semi-sentient, but not in a parrot’s class — it is a trust based on an evaluation of my trustworthiness. I’ve experienced that moment many time in my life, and it always leaves me excited, humbled, and more than a little honored.