After four years, our parrot Beau has changed his behavior. In the last month, he’s started seeking us out to preen us.
If you know nothing about parrots, you probably don’t realize what a milestone that is. It’s not the same as a cat enjoying having its stomach scratched, or a dog licking your face. Cats and dogs can learn to enjoy interacting with humans in these ways, but these are not the behaviors of mature animals. They are the behaviors of very young animals that cats and dogs have kept because they are rewarded for them, and because they are pleasurable.
By contrast, parrots of all ages preen – not just their mates or their young, but other parrots in the flock as well. Partly, exchanging preens is a necessity, because, like many birds, parrots have places they just can’t reach themselves, such as behind the head and under the beak. Moreover, feather cases growing in can be uncomfortable.
But, just as importantly, preening is an important part of the complex, ever-shifting relationships in a flock. Who preens who (and in what order) can be a matter of status as well as trust. A parrot needs to preen and be preened almost as much as he or she needs water and varied food. For a parrot, preening is not just an indulgence; denied this social interaction, a parrot is unhappy and often despondent.
All this is true at any time, but it is even truer when a parrot chooses to preen a human. Parrots raised among humans may reach the necessary level of trust quicker than a wild parrot, but even a hand-fed one does not have the long history of domestication than a cat or a dog has. Even today, most domestic parrots are no more than a few generations removed from the wild. They are not creatures selected over centuries for subservience to humans.
Parrots that preen a human may be desperate for interaction, but they are still choosing to trust. Equal to equal, they are expressing friendship.
For these reasons, a preen by a parrot is not anything that you can take for granted. But it is especially touching in a neglected parrot like Beau, particularly since he has taken so long to reach this stage. We adopted Beau four years ago from the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary, and he arrived in our house with baggage. He may have lost a mate, and he had apparently spent several years exiled to a laundry room, with only the sound of the washing machine and dryer for company. He may have been in mourning when he arrived in our house (parrots do mourn), and he was definitely seriously under-socialized.
When not crazed by his own hormones in the spring, in the past, Beau would accept a brief neck scratch, and sometimes a tickle under his wing, but, until now, he has not been much interested in returning the favor.
Now, he is preening with a persistence and enthusiasm that he never had before. If a hand is nearby, he will start preening between fingers or knuckles. If an arm is nearby, he will start on the arm hairs. But what he seems to like best is to scurry up a shoulder and preen hair and cheeks for minutes at a time.
As a veteran of decades of bird preens, I can tell he is tentative. But mostly he is eager, almost as though making up for lost time. His preening can be a little nerve-wracking, because ears tend to get him so excited that he bites, but gradually he is learning the rules, just as I am learning to relax under his ministrations.
Despite my nervousness, I feel honored by the change. I always do, but, in this case, I also take the preening as a sign that his rehabilitation is nearly complete. Like many parrots, Beau may never completely recover from being abused, but at least now we know for sure that he has made progress to a more normal life, and is comfortable in his new surroundings.