Four days ago, my Nanday conure Ning lost Sophy, his mate of 24 years, to old age. They had nested successfully four times, producing six chicks, and were a model of happy monogamy, constantly preening and never moving more than a few meters from each other. Ning had cared for her as though she were a chick in her final days, standing over her and preening and regurgitating to make sure she was fed. He was beside her when she died, and I have been able to observe first hand how he grieves. Being a widower myself, I feel a certain identification with what he is going through.
He knew at once when she died. Within a few seconds after she died, he nuzzled her once with her beak, and then moved twenty-five centimeters away, looking very small, with his feathers pressed tightly against his body, which is a sign of unhappiness in any parrot. He did not attack me when I placed her body in a shoe box to take to the vet (as I had half-expected), but went quietly up on my hand and into the cage.
When I returned from the vet, he was in the same position and had eaten little from his dish. But he screeched excitedly when I opened the door, and climbed up to my shoulder, pressing as tightly as he could against my neck and staying there for a couple of hours. I neglected the other birds to give him some time, stroking his back far more than he usually allows.
I was worrying that I might need to feed him and that, without his mate, he might no longer be able to hold his own against his arch-rival Beau, but my concerns proved needless.
As soon as I let the other birds out, Ning became manic. So much as 230 grams of bird can, he stamped around the table and the floor, trying to be everywhere at once. He seemed to have decided that he was going to prove his dominance once and for all by a frantic display. If so, it worked incredibly well – Beau is still reluctant to leave his cage when Ning is out. Now, as a result of Ning’s display, the dining room table is no longer a No-Go area for all the birds, but has been thoroughly annexed by Ning.
That evening, Ning preened me more than he had since the days after we brought him home, and he decided I was flock. But he would stop periodically to cheep for Sophy, and would occasionally fly off to the cage, and peer around it as though hoping she was somehow there. Later, when I put the cover on the cage, I could hear him cheeping for her again. I admit that went to bed early that night, because I could not stand to hear him.
The next morning was even harder. Ning went to Sophy’s convalescence cage, and seemed bewildered when neither she nor the towel I had arranged for her was there. After a moment, he moved down to the perch and started regurgitating. For a moment, it felt to me as though he was responding to Sophy’s ghost, and I was glad when he climbed to the top of the cage.
Fortunately, he started eating again on the second day, and his appetite is hearty. But he will take all the chew toys and attention that I tend to give him, and his efforts to preen me have a gentleness and a desperation that they never had before. He obviously needs the closeness – and, to be honest, so do I. At the same time, he regularly asserts his dominance by inspection tours of the area he claims.
It seems to me that the ability to mourn is a sign of sentience. After all, if a creature does not have a sense of itself, how can it feel loss? If it does not have a sense of others, then how can it mourn? If I did not already know from both personal experience and from Irene Pepperberg’s scientific studies that the intelligence of parrots overlaps with the lower levels of human intelligence, Ning’s behavior over the last few days would have proven his sentience ten times over. We’re supporting each other through our mutual loss – and I can only hope that I provide him with half the comfort that he gives me.