For five years, my living room has been a war zone, and I have been cast in a role midway between a UN observer and one of the gods of Olympus in the Iliad, mostly watching, but intervening now and then to spirit one hero or the other out of danger.
The combatants are two male Nandays, a type of small South American parrot. One side of the room houses Ning, an elderly bird little slowed by his age, and his mate Sophie. Ning was the first parrot we bought, and is under the impression that the fact that he was here first makes him top parrot (actually, he’s only top male, but Sophie allows him his illusions).
On the other side of the room is Beau, a much younger male, who is also much bigger than Ning. Having youth and size on his side, Beau is of the firm belief that he should be dominant male, and cannot understand why Ning should have a different opinion and not wish to abdicate in the face of the inevitable.
The household also has a third male, Ram, who lives in the kitchen. But because he has a damaged foot and leans forward in compensation so that he looks smaller than he is, he is not an active participant in the territorial dispute. Probably, too, his tendency to make baby sounds helps prevent the others from seeing him as a rival. At any rate, his sole role in the dispute is to bolster Beau’s sense of security; Beau tolerates Ram in his territory apparently on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
From close observation, I could paint the boundary between Ning’s and Beau’s territories with an accuracy measured in millimeters. Should either bird cross the line, the other will dive-bomb or make other threatening gestures. Should one bird come close to the line when I carry him, he will quickly fly back from it.
Usually, the two combatants are content to scream abuse from their side of the living room. However, trouble arises because Ning is the master of psychological warfare. Like a kid in the back seat of the car who is told not to cross the invisible boundary that separates him or her from a sibling, Ning routinely sits a few centimeters over the line, daring Beau to respond.
In the past, Ning has been quite safe making this provocative gesture because the position of a tea trolley and some of Trish’s craft supplies ensured that the angle was too steep for Beau to dive bomb him. Ning would sit, just over the line, preening and making contented noises, while Beau screamed hysterically, unable to retaliate (Nandays being great cowards, whose wars consist almost entirely of feints and bluffs and almost never lead to actual contact between rivals). I don’t think I’m anthropomorphizing to say that Beau looks and sounds distinctly baffled. How could a young stud like him with everything in his favor be continually bested by that old fart across the way?:
However, after Trish died, my tidying altered the balance of power. Because of my alterations, Beau could now dive bomb Ning in the middle of the floor. During an attack, Ning shows a studied nonchalance, but his new vulnerability clearly disconcerted him, because he stopped sitting just over the boundary.
For a while, I felt guilty that my actions had overturned the established norm. Poor Ning, I thought, would have to spend his declining years subordinated to Beau in the place where he had been lord and master for so many years.
Then I noticed that Ning had discovered a new strategy. Instead of swaggering out into the middle of the floor, he now creeps along under the dining room table until he is right beneath Beau’s cage, where the angle is too steep for dive bombing. All on his own, Ning has evolved a new way to frustrate his rival.
I feel sorry for Beau, but the situation reminds me of that T-shirt that you used to see: “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” Ning has the psychological edge on Beau, and knows how to keep it, so all of Beau’s other advantages are meaningless. Beau considers the situation grossly unfair (if I am any judge of his attitude),but doesn’t know how to counter Ning’s taunting behavior. For his part, Ning, to judge from puffed-up feathers and happy chortling, enjoys keeping Beau off balance and upset. And why not? With next to no physical effort and no fighting, Ning manages to persuade Beau that he is still dominant male, and has no intention of giving up.