In the two weeks since my parrot Ning died, many people have expressed their sympathies. Inevitably, they talk about the “unconditional love” of pets. Knowing that they mean well, I haven’t bothered correcting them, until yesterday I suddenly said to a friend, “Actually, the whole point about parrots is their love is conditional.”
When you stop to think, this statement is obvious. Although people have kept parrots for centuries, until a couple of decades ago, very few were born in captivity. Instead, each generation of parrots was taken from the wild.
As a result, at the very most, a parrot has only two or three generations of captivity. Unlike a dog, or even a cat, parrots haven’t been domesticated for thousands of years. They haven’t been bred to be docile, and they definitely haven’t been bred to be friendly towards humans. Other animals may stay loyal to the humans in their lives even when mistreated, but not a parrot.
If you want the loyalty of parrots, you have to earn it. You have to spend time with them, talking to them and feeding them and scratching the back of their necks. In other words, you have to convince them that you are trustworthy. Before they develop an affection for you, you have to earn it. Even if a parrot has been raised by hand, unless it is too young to have any sense of self or fear, it is going to take a while to accept you.
To some people, this behavior might be disappointing. If you expect a pet to take to you instantly, the fact that you may need to wait several weeks before your efforts are reciprocated may seem unreasonable.
Personally, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The flip side of all the patience needed to win over parrots is that when it happens – when they chirp happily to see you, or raise a tentative beak to preen your cheek – you feel that you have really earned something. Then, that moment is followed by the parrots gradually relaxing around you, and getting to know your quirks as you get to know theirs.
A human’s relationship with any pet is never going to be one of equals. If nothing else, you have teach parrots the limits of acceptable behavior, as much for their own safety as your own convenience.
All the same, your interactions with a parrot are likely to be far more like those with another human than any with a dog or a cat. Being social animals, parrots always want company, but they will be negotiating the relationship continually, not just responding to instinct. Just because they accept your dominance in some interactions doesn’t mean that they will accept it in everything. They will always be testing the limits, and at times they may challenge you.
A parrot’s friendship with you will always have an element of choice – and that is precisely what makes it worthwhile.