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As I type, two parrots are fighting for dominance not much more than a meter away from me. It is not a fight in the conventional sense, because both participants are careful to avoid actually touching each other, but it is none the less real for that.

The struggle erupted because Beaudin, the large, younger cock discovered the hutch on my printer stand. The color inkjet is small enough that the space between its top and the cupboard on the hutch has all the space that Beau needs to pad about on top of it. Any nanday conure likes a semi-dark place they can peer out of, and since he discovered the space a few days ago, he flies directly to it whenever he is let out of his cage.

At first, I didn’t object, because he can’t damage anything – well, except for the covers showing the ink cartridges used by the printer that I taped to the top for convenience. After all, I would far rather fetch him from on top of the inkjet that from the floor behind the couch, which used to be his favorite place to hide until I blocked access with a collection of bolsters and old towels.

What I didn’t take into account is that the hutch is half a meter from Rambunctious’ cage in the kitchen. Nor did I expect Ram, a crippled cock who used to mostly ignore the contests when his father Ning was alive and keeping Beau thoroughly psyched out, to defend his territory. He certainly has no scruples about sitting close to Beau’s cage, and even flying over to it occasionally.

Apparently, though, such privileges are not reciprocal. When Beau scampers on top of the printer, Ram rushes from his cage, puffing up and hissing, and stands on the edge of the kitchen counter, peering around the edge of the hutch and screaming at the top of his voice.

Since Ram was a handfed baby and rewarded with attention for being cute when he grew up, his screams retain a juvenile squeak that probably makes them less effective than they should be. However, his sounds manage to communicate his conviction that Beau is trespassing.

For his part, Beau screams back in kind, his tones deeper and more adult. He is obviously taken by his new refuge, and intent on annexing it to his territory.

After the initial screaming match, Beau and Ram settle in to peering around the edge of the hutch at each other, quickly retreating just before they come beak to beak, both of them fanning their wings to look bigger. Their breathing becomes so agitated that I am mildly worried about one of them having a stroke, although I suspect that neither is in any real danger.

The peering is followed by each tapping with his beak on the side of the hutch. Each is responding to the sound of the other, and the tapping is usually followed by another peer around the corner. After a few rounds of this behavior, both back off and make an elaborate show of ignoring each other, preening, or devouring bits of food. Usually, only the telltale raised neck feathers and stiff posture shows that both are on the alert – that, and the way one will sometimes wave his tale just out of reach, seeming to dare the other to try biting it.

Then one will catch sight of the other again, and the screaming and peering begins again.

In order to get some work done and let one of them sit on me, I often have to put one of the birds in his cage. Otherwise, the behavior can go on for hours.

But let me settle down to watch a DVD on the futon by the window, and Ram will sit on my chest, and Beau on the cushion behind me, not much further away than they are when Beau is on the hutch. Apparently, the futon and I are neutral territory, and the feud has a different and quieter etiquette there.

I’ve considered blocking the space that Beau has infiltrated, or possibly working on another computer on the futon. Yet for all their apparent seriousness, I get the sense that Beau and Ram enjoy their feud, perhaps as a break in routine.

If so, who am I to spoil their fun? Maybe I’ll just invest in a pair of ear plugs instead.

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I’ve lived with Nanday conures – a kind of small, South American parrot – most of my adult life. I knew they were intensely social birds, craving flock and constantly re-negotiating their status. But I never realized just how much the composition of the flock could affect personality until the last few months of watching my bird Beaudin.

Beaudin was a rescued bird we adopted six years ago in a process that could hardly have been more rigorous if we had been adopting a human child. He was about thirteen at the time, and may have lost a mate. When Trish and I brought him home, he had been neglected for several years, kept in a half-dark laundry room and mostly ignored.

We set up Beau’s cage across the room from Ningauble and Sophie‘s. We soon noticed that Ning thoroughly dominated him. Ning’s domination could have been because he was the oldest bird, and had been resident in the living room the longest. Possibly, too, Ning dominated because he was the only cock with a mate. But whatever the reason, Ning had Beau under control from the start.

A large and soon healthy bird, Beau would challenge Ning at every opportunity, answering his calls defiantly with his own. If Ning hopped down on the floor to explore, Beau would dive-bomb him if he crossed the invisible border between their territories. While he wouldn’t come down on the floor himself, he would pace back and forth, squawking furiously if Ning disappeared under the couch or behind it, obviously expecting an ambush at any moment.

Yet, for all Beau’s young machismo, Ning always had the psychological edge. He would sit just centimeters over the border, apparently calmly preening, but actually alert for any attack. When Ning discovered he could use the table to infiltrate to a position directly under Beau’s cage, where the angle was too steep for Beau to dive-bomb, he took full advantage of the fact, lingering there as long as I would let him.

I am ashamed to admit now that I laughed at Beau. He seemed so full of expectations of becoming dominant and so puzzled at the hold Ning had over him that I had to laugh. Partly, my reaction was a pleasure at seeing that age and the death of his mate hadn’t slowed Ning down any, but mostly I laughed because Beau’s reaction seemed so exaggerated.

Then six months ago Ning died, and Beau became the dominant cock at last. Rambunctious, my other surviving parrot, is crippled, so he has never tried to dominate, and suddenly Beau had what he had sought by default.

For several months, he continued to look around cautiously, peering at the places where Ning had liked to hang out as if to be sure he wasn’t about to be attacked. But, almost immediately, Beau became more confident, exploring further from his cage. Now, he spends more time with me at the computer, flying to and from my shoulder as he pleases, hardly ever checking for where Ning might lurk.

A nervous bird, Beau didn’t calm down completely. But he became a quieter bird. His expressions of surprise or peevishness still sound like a cockatiel’s, but they are usually quieter, and last for a shorter time. Where he had once preened with Trish and I only occasionally, and never for long, he now preens me and presents himself for a neck and wing scratch several times a day, and coos contentedly when I talk to him.. Only occasionally, when the shadow of another bird crosses the window or when I move too quickly does he act like he used to. For the most part, he is a much more confident bird, although I suspect he will always be high-strung.

As for relationships with Ram, Beau is benevolent, as dictators go. He will concede my shoulder to Ram for brief periods, and wait if I feed Ram a piece of peach or some fruit juice first. But he expects his share of both attention, and will fly over to claim it, driving Ram away in his eagerness – although, mindful of Ning’s treatment of Beau, I intervene to keep them from fighting, because, after his initial retreat, Ram has a tendency to lunge and bluff, and I am not sure if either will back down.

Beau’s transformation has convinced me that we often under-estimate just how social parrots really are. To an extent, being plunged into a small flock might have been just what Beau needed to help him recover after years of isolation. There is, after all, a theory, that intelligence develops in social species in order to think about relationships. But, because he was the newcomer and therefore low-status, past a certain point, being in a flock seems to have slowed his recovery from neglect beyond a certain point.

Perhaps the effect of having other nandays about might have been different in a larger space, or with different birds. I don’t know. But I do know that, if another parrot ever comes to live in the townhouse, I will think more about how the personalities involved might interact.

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The other night, I was lying on the futon when I noticed our parrots going absolutely rigid. Unlike their usual habit, when they see a crow or a seagull, they were not calling out. They were making small, disturbed chirps, and their feathers were tight against their bodies – a sure sign of agitation.

Looking outside, I couldn’t see any reason for their disturbance at first. Then I noticed crows and smaller birds streaking low into the trees, and I realized a predator must be in the neighborhood. Sure enough, after a moment, I spotted a bald eagle perched atop tree about a hundred meters from the window.

Most of what I could see with my unaided eyes was a black silhouette, since it was less than twenty minutes before sunset. Still, there was no mistaking what I was seeing. Although I had nothing I could compare the silhouette with to be sure of its size, the general outline was nothing like the crows that usually sit on that perch. It was longer and thinner. It didn’t move like a crow, either. It kept peering this way and that with a jerk of the head that was most uncrow-like, and fanning and unfanning its tail.

Nor could the avian reactions, both outside or in leave me with any doubt that I was seeing a predator. Outside, I could see more silhouettes streaking low across the sky behind the eagle towards shelter. Nearby, the usual sounds as the birds go to roost were completely missing from the night. Inside, our parrots were tense and straining forward to keep an eye on the visitor, ignoring everything else.

What interested me about the parrots’ reaction was that they had no trouble recognizing a predator when they saw one. Of our four parrots, at least one was taken from the wild as a baby, and one was born in our living room, and neither of them could have had any personal experience of raptors, yet both reacted exactly the same as the other two. Of course, nanday conures are a flock species, and alarms and greetings spread quickly, even between parrots who don’t like each other. Yet it seems clear that, at some instinctual level, they knew a predator when they saw one.

At the same time, the two on the futon were not so alarmed that they panicked. On some level, they seemed to know that they were far enough away not to be a main target. Possibly, too, they were aware of the window between them and the eagle; one of the first bits of training we do with all our birds is introduce them to the window, so that they don’t fly into it by accident. Instead of backing slowly away, as I half-expected, they not only stayed where they were, but actually moved forward a bit, craning, to get a better view. In other words, they were on alert, but seemed aware that they were safe. Perhaps what I was seeing was instinct and intelligence fighting for control.

After about five minutes, the eagle stirred abruptly, seeming to fall rather than fly from its perch. I soon found out why: a half dozen crows were charging it. A predator can make short work of a single crow, but a determined flock of crows outhinks and outguns it, and this eagle was obviously experienced enough not to challenge its attackers. Now its turn had come to seek shelter, and the last I saw, it was flapping furiously, trying to outdistance the crows and not having much luck.

The crows, no doubt, had a strong incentive. This past ten days or so, the first of this year’s baby crows have been taking their first flying lessons, leaving many of them stranded permanently or temporarily on the ground, or on remote perches without being quite sure how to get back to the nest. I had been dive-bombed several times myself because of my curiosity, and no doubt the eagle, for whom the crow fledglings provide an easy meal, had raised the ire of the adults.

Given the timing, you can almost imagine the adult crows acting like a fighter squadron, scrambling to get a response into the air as soon as possible to confront the danger. When you consider crows’ intelligence and social organization, that metaphor might even be a reasonably literal description of what happened.

With the eagle gone, our parrots relaxed almost instantly – another sign, I suppose, that they know exactly what a predator is. As for me, I was left with both a gut-level awareness of the eagle as predator and our parrots as prey species that I had never had before. And, for all my fascination with observing the reactions, I found that I was relaxing too, along with the rest of my flock.

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Few animals or birds are as affectionate as parrots. Mostly living in flocks, they are intensely social, so much so that interaction is intensely important to them – so much so that an ignored parrot is an abused parrot. Next to the average parrot, a cat is an ascetic, and a dog is a treacherous turncoat who will betray you at every chance. Yet, being highly intelligent as well, each parrot demonstrates affection in their own way.

Our own Nanday conures illustrate a variety of preferences. Ning, our oldest cock, was once a studious preener. When he first accepted us, he would gently preen every square centimeter of my hair, then march down the couch to preen Trish’s. However, when he became the mate of Sophie, he showed less interest in preening us, although he still tries to preen our mouths. But his preference is to stand beak beneath a human nose, making kissing noises, for as long as we will let him. When I am doing my couch potato imitation, his preference is to tuck himself against the side of my jaw, making a purring noise like a miniature green refrigerator. You always know when he is set on preening, because he swaggers over with an arrogant determination to get the affection that he wants. He likes a quick scratch under the chin or over his ear holes, but never for more than about a minute.

By contrast, Ning’s mate Sophy is more standoffish. She was an abused bird when we bought her, and has never learned to trust hands completely. To this day, she only enjoys a preen so long as she is turned away and doesn’t officially notice it. Instead, her preference is to do the preening herself. She will preen a motionless hand or arm for twenty minutes at a stretch. She also enjoys preening a face, especially around the eyes, having perfected a delicate preening that makes her the only one of us our birds whose beak we would trust so close to our eyes.

Rambunctious, our crippled cock who was handfed as a baby, is the exact opposite of Sophy. Where Sophy is standoffish, Ram will fly anywhere, anytime to one of us so he can sit on a shoulder, cheeping happily away as if telling a long and rambling story. Once I stop moving, he will belly up to a neck and start preening the side of my face. If he comes across me lying down, his greatest joy is to roll on his side in the middle of my chest, with my hand cupped over him. He will stay that way for forty minutes, given the opportunity, and has been known to fall asleep in that position.

Seeing Beaudin, the youngest cock, strut up and down and make harsh cockatiel squawks, you would never believe that he had an appetite for affection. But, the truth is, he is the most affection-hungry bird in our house. Possibly, he doesn’t quite believe that he has a permanent home. Or perhaps, as we suspect, he is a handfed bird like Ram. But, whatever the reason, he has an endless appetite for interaction with us. He likes to sidle up against the palm of a hand, and be scratched endlessly almost anywhere. Under the beak, over the ear, on the neck, under the wing – it’s all the same to him, so long as the preening is constant. A few minutes of this treatment, and he goes so limp that he seems boneless, rolling on his side and gently nibbling any nearby fingers.

Much of this behavior seems based on their experiences in the nest. For instance, it is easy to guess that a nose hovering above them to an accompaniment of clucking sounds reminds them of when they were just hatched, and a beak was hovering over them protectively. But, whatever, the reason, all our birds seem endlessly preoccupied with giving and receiving affect. Even Ning and Sophy, who are rarely more than a meter away from each other, welcome the chance to preen one of us given any encouragement whatsoever. Their affectionate nature is one of the main reasons why parrots remain my pet of choice.

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Yesterday, I was at the Commercial Drive Skytrain station when I heard familiar querulous noises in the trees on the other side of the tracks. I scanned the trees, but the bright sunlight made the shadows so deep that I was on the train before I could confirm that a raven was present. It was shifting uneasily, trying to keep its grip on a branch that was too slender to carry its weight. Just before the train pulled out, I saw another one on top of the highest of the scrub alders that line the slope of the railway cut that the Skytrain runs through. As always when I see a raven, I felt unexpectedly cheered. If I were superstitious, I would have said the sighting was a good omen.

Considering ravens’ reputations as eaters of carrion – Old English poetry is full of references to ravens and wolves feeding on fallen warriors after a battle – this reaction may seem strange. I can only explain it by two facts: First, that having parrots in my living room for over two decades has left me absolutely bird-mad, and, second, that, when you look at raven, an aware individual looks back at you. That makes ravens spooky, and a small piece of wonder.

Some people say that they have trouble telling the difference between ravens and crows. To them, I can only reply that they can’t ever have seen a raven. In both size and sentience, ravens far surpass crows – and crows are undoubtedly one of the brighter species around, too. The first time that I saw ravens, I had no doubt whatsoever that I was seeing something more than a big crow.

That first encounter was on the western side of the Rockies, a few days after I had graduated, when I was on a camping trip that was really an excuse to visit a young woman who had briefly attended my high school and had written to me ever since. We were driving around a bend in the highway when I saw two ravens sitting on a concrete divider on the side of the road. As the car approached, they cocked their heads at us, then glided away above the creek bed below them, moving with a deliberation that immediately fascinated me.

A decade later, a pair of ravens were nesting in the green belt around Simon Fraser University on Burnaby Mountain. I first saw them one fog-bound morning in fall as Trish and I were driving to work: two low-flying shadows, their characteristic kronk amplified by the fog into something eerie. After we parked, I saw one perched on top of a blue Honda Civic, its wings draped over the windows as if it were resting after an effort to carry the vehicle away. A while later, I saw it on the jade boulder in the reflecting pond, reminding me of Emily Carr’s “Big Raven.”

For the next few years while I was working as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, I would see the pair when I walked around campus or went for a run on the trails. Often, in spring, they would often be fleeing a mob of crows who were defending their nests and their young.

Once, I saw them behind Horizon’s Restaurant in Centennial Park on the west side of Burnaby Mountain. One was perched on a railing, standing sentry while the other was dumpster-diving. In the case of this raven, “diving” was more than alliteration: it really did go beak-first into the bin, vocalizing furiously as it sorted through the garbage. Then it would poke its head up as if breaking the surface of a pond.

When it found a food-smeared wrapper and flapped down to the grass to investigate it, I inched to within a few meters. It watched intently, its eyes darting to the other raven occasionally – not scared, but clearly evaluating me and the degree of threat I represented.

(It’s an unnerving feeling, being evaluated by another species. Like most people, if they’re pressed, I still tend to think of animals as less self-aware than I am. I’ve learned to make exceptions in the case of parrots, yet, even for me, the first realization that a species has a degree of sentience that overlaps with humanity’s is a humbling and profound experience. Science fiction is always talking about first contact with an alien species, but, for some of us, that moment has already happened.)

In the end, I backed away, acknowledging the raven’s right to examine its spoils in peace. But we stood watching from a more respectful distance for at least half an hour. Then a busboy came out from the restaurant with some garbage, and the ravens flew away.

Over the years, I’ve seen ravens several more times around the greater Vancouver area. Once, I saw them scavenging at an outdoor patio at the Student Union Building at the University of British Columbia – a scene that tourists, I thought, would pay good money to see. I tried getting pictures myself, but the ravens were camera-shy, and would start away whenever I raised the camera to my eye.

Another time, I saw two ravens at the same Skytrain station – possibly the same ones. The railway cut is both a dumping ground for the garbage of the east end and home to hundreds of squirrels and small creatures, so it would be an easy source of food for the ravens, once they learned to keep clear of the trains and rapid transit line (It’s not true that ravens can’t hunt; they simply won’t bother if an easier food supply is available). At the time, I was going through the worst period of my life, and the unexpected site boosted my spirits considerably.

I’m not a birder, but I always notice birds far more than other people. When a red-tailed hawk has staked out a section of highway and is waiting for roadkill, I notice. I can tell you about the social structure of young crows when they first leave the nest, and where all crows roost at night in the area. And once, I spent far too much of early summer watching seagulls raise chicks on a flat, weed-covered roof in Yaletown when I was supposed to be writing a manual.

Yet, of all the local species, ravens fascinate me the most. That’s why I dislike the collective noun for a group of ravens: an unkindness. For me, sighting a raven is far from an unkindness. It’s a surprise gift, and the encounter always leaves me unexpectedly buoyed.

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