Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Parrots’ Category

At the start of February, my parrot Beaudin died. It was unexpected, because to all appearances he was healthy and active until his last few hours. Suddenly, for the first time in decades, I was sharing the townhouse with a single parrot, and the silence was unsettling.

A few people suggested that I was becoming too old to get another parrot. Besides, some said, pets would only tie me down. However, chances are that I have several decades left, and, really, what worthwhile choices don’t tie you down?

Moreover, the number of abused and neglected parrots made me determined to do what I can to help without becoming a Crazy Old Parrot Man. After mourning Beau, I contacted Greyhaven, the adoption agency from which he had come, and asked whether it had any conures who needed home.

Greyhaven is still reeling from the collapse of the World Parrot Refuge, a well-intentioned effort to provide for domestic parrots that ended with neglect and larger parrots preying on smaller ones, and at first I was told that no smaller birds were currently available. However, then the staff remembered Morrison, a brown-throated conure who had been with the agency for almost two years.

Morrison had been abandoned by his person. His person had not seen fit to take the little bird when he separated, and the wife had no interest in keeping birds. Greyhaven’s volunteers had seen to his basic needs, but his noisy and curious personality was too demanding for most of them to give him more than minimal attention. But that same personality is what has always attracted me to conures, so I agreed to consider him.

Greyhaven’s adoption policy can be rigorous – and rightly so, since the point is counter the cruelty and neglect that domestic parrots often face. I was prepared for questions about my lifestyle and knowledge of parrots, but the adoption coordinator remembered me from Beaudin’s adoption, and the interview was largely a formality. One look at Morrison was enough to delight me, and to let me know that he should have no trouble settling in. Smaller than a nanday, he almost seems delicate, except that is active, almost hyper personality dominates the space around him automatically, with the slightest need for aggression. I had expected some objection from Ram, my remaining parrot and the victor of many dominance competitions, but he is largely indifferent to having a stranger around — perhaps because Morrison is a different species.

I was prepared to spend hours feeding Morrison to help him accept me, teaching him to step up and coaxing him to eat fruits and vegetables. But none of that proved necessary. He was under-socialized, but not abused. Within a few hours, he was sitting on me, and in less than a day eagerly exploring the living room.

He was eager, too, to start what is apparently a ritual with him: exchanging whistles and his limited vocabulary of “Hello” and “Pretty bird” with a person over and over. Probably, he has little understanding of the words, but just as obviously he knows the important of verbalization in human socialization. Pleased with the attention, he will keep the ritual going for as long as ten minutes at a time if I continue to participate.

If anything, he is almost too eager to settle in. He has the habit of flying to Ram’s cage, an invasion of privacy that Ram does not appreciate. Several times, I have had to lunge across the living room before Ram could make his objections known on Morrison’s person.

Still, perhaps I worry too much. After less than a week, Ran and Morrison were sitting on me as I lay watching a video. And as I type now, Ram has claimed my right shoulder and Morrison my left. Sometimes, they studiously ignore each other, each preening his back and making happy chirps while watching intently, and I have to be watch that Morrison keeps to his own side – but mostly all is right with the world, at least when the two birds are on neutral ground.

In years of working with parrots, I have never met one who adjusted so easily as Morrison has. If the first ten days are any indication, I look forward to years of his company. Morrison is nothing like Beaudin, and certainly not a substitute for him, but he is very much his own person, and someone I am overjoyed to know.

Read Full Post »

 beau-sept-2013

Beaudin Goodfellow, aka Beaudin de la Bec Noir, died today shortly after 4am. I was holding him cupped in my hands on my chest, knowing he was fading. He had been unconscious for twenty minutes, and I was sure he would not wake again, but he suddenly lunged forward, spreading his wings, and collapsed. For a moment I hoped he had rallied, but then I saw the light leave his eyes, and knew that he was gone.

Beau came into our lives in 2006. Trish and I made a practice of not having more than four birds at a time, reasoning that two apiece were the most to which we could pay adequate attention, and the death of Jabberwock the year before had reduced the birds to three, leaving Ram outnumbered by the mated pair of Ning and Sophie.

We wanted a rescue bird, so we adopted him through Greyhaven, the local bird rescue charity. It might have been easier to adopt a human child, considering how we were vetted and interviewed, but since the whole point was to compensate for neglect, Trish and I entirely approved of the process. We were told he had had a mate and lost her, and that he had spent several years locked in his cage in a dimly lit laundry room, and was about seventeen, but all this information was tentative. He might have spent time with cockatiels, since he sounded like a deeper pitched one, but nobody really knew.

What was obvious, though, was that he was high-strung. He could be quiet enough while he was on a shoulder, but getting him to step up left my right index finger a bloody mess of scars for over a year before he became calm enough to step up without drawing blood.

Still, we managed to enjoy him from afar, watching him bathe in his water dish while chortling happily, and watching him open the latch on his cage until we had to thwart him by tying the cage shut – a parrot who gets loose when you are not around is a danger to themselves. We even had to tie the barred floor of his cage to the frame, because he soon learned to bounce it loose and slip out the bottom of the bars.

100_0546

After several years, though, he became a glutton for affection. He would slip under my finger on the keyboard, chuckling and demanding that I scratch his neck, and grooming my fingernails gently. At other times, he would roll over on his back on the sideboard beside my work station,squeaking and nipping playfully at my fingers. Increasingly, he would fly to me wherever I was, leaving me terrified that he might land just as I opened the oven and tumble into it. He even learned to tolerate sitting twenty centimeters from Ram on the futon by the window, just so he could nestle in the crook of my elbow.

bird-in-the-hand

Perhaps Beau tolerated Ram because Ram is a cripple who never learned to make an adult squawk and seemed no threat (although, as often as not, Ram would win their dominance games). Or perhaps Ram was the enemy of his enemy Ning. Beau never did take to Ning, the mated cock on the other side of the living room. They fought territorial skirmishes until I felt like a UN observer, and Ning would torment Beau by crawling under the table to beneath Beau’s cage, where the angle was too steep to dive bomb him. Beau would always be furious – and totally clueless about how to respond. I could almost see him thinking that he was young and tall and should be dominant, yet somehow he never managed to give Ning a bad moment.

In recent years, with the flock down to Beau and Ram, Beau blossomed. It always touched me to see him showing affection, considering how violent he had been when we first brought him home.

I had spent the last couple of days trying to decide if Beau was ill. But like many parrots, Beau was good at hiding his illness. Besides, he remained a hearty eater up to his final few hours, raiding my dinner plate then retreating with a bit of corn or potato as he had always done, and emptying his seed dish.

100_0532

Still, I detected some unsteadiness, and decided to take him to the vet this morning, just to have him checked. I prepared a travel cage, and placed it in him for the night so I could wake and leave as soon as it was late enough. Just to be sure, I placed the travel cage on a chest by my bed, and slept with the lights on so I could check him easily. Once, I woke to see him sleeping in the corner of the cage nearest me.

The next time I woke, his posture seemed unnatural, so I took him from the cage, scratching his ears and stroking his wings, talking and singing to him. I knew by then he would never survive to arrive at the vet’s, and that the most I could do was soothe him in his final moments – and perhaps not even that much.

I was out the door before 8am today to take his body for cremation. When I returned, it would be hard to say if Ram or I were more aware of the Beau-shaped hole in our daily routines. So Ram and I are sitting together, neither of us wanting to go far from the other.

100_0533

Read Full Post »

In the next few centuries, we may encounter non-human intelligences in space. I hope that first contact occurs during my lifetime, but, if it doesn’t, I am not concerned. Without any exaggeration, I can say that my personal first contact happened when I was twenty-six on the bottom floor of the Pike Place Market in Seattle, when I discovered parrots.

Until then, I hadn’t thought much about parrots. So far as I was concerned, parrots were kept in cages like fish in aquariums, minding their own business and eating decaying fruits and vegetables for preference. About all that could be said for them, I thought, was that they were more interesting than reptiles, and less creepy.

Trish and I were meeting friends who read tarot in a booth down the hall from the parrot shop. Waiting for our friends to finish work for the day, we wandered down to stare at the birds. It was a gaudy, raucous experience, and I suspect that too many birds were crammed into too small an area by modern standards, but I realized almost at once that almost everything I knew about parrots was wrong.

I was captivated. Best of all were the birds running up and down the torsos and arms of Dick and Diane, the store’s owners, chuckling, squawking, stopping for a scratch and occasionally a squabble. Some of the birds would pause, looking at me while hanging upside down, and, meeting their eyes, I knew there was an intelligence, watching and evaluating me. The experience was uncanny and thrilling at the same time.

After that, we made a habit of stopping at the parrot shop whenever we were in Seattle. We started visiting pet shops at home, too. Those were the days when the exotic bird trade was still unregulated, and pet stores would get dozens of different species for sale, most of them kept in overcrowded conditions.

Once, we saw birds with scaly face mites disfiguring their beaks being kept in a coral with other birds with clipped wings, and made a point of avoiding that chain of stores every after.

Not that the stores we continued to visit were much better. I suspect now that most of the birds in such stores died, and most of the rest went to homes where they were chosen to match the decor in the living room, and thrust into closets and back rooms when they stopped being amusing to their owners. Only a handful are likely to have had happy lives.

Now, the restrictions on the parrot trade have mostly ended such commercial misery, and I regret having assisted it by patronizing such stores. At the time, though, we had no idea. Our fascination grew, and, when our tarot-reading friends bought a yellow-naped dwarf macaw they named Coquette, who quickly befriended us, we became ambitious to own a parrot ourselves.

Large parrots like cockatoos, and macaws were beyond what we could afford, and Amazons seems staid. However, we soon learned that conures, a small South American type of parrot had much the same irreverent rowdiness as macaws, and were far less expensive.

We briefly considered a blue-headed conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store who responded excitedly to us through the bars, going so far as to think of naming him MacAlpen, because his blue and green feathers reminded us of a hunting pattern on some of the older Scottish kilts. But somehow, he didn’t seem quite right.

Then at the Kingsgate Mall, we met a young nanday in the closed room. His round cage sat amid a dozen others, most of which were much larger than he was. The only other bird near his size was a red rosella, and they would hang from the bars of their cages for hours, cheeping back and forth.

The nanday had a bright-eyed look of innocence. He was also missing two claws on his foot, which was almost a sure sign of the kind of rough treatment associated with the illegal export of birds. In addition, the store owner seemed dodgy, boasting of contacts that sounded like smugglers and claiming that the nanday was several years old when his all-black hood strongly suggested he was under a year.

We went home and looked up nandays in the magazines we had accumulated. Nandays were poor talkers, we read. They were noisy, and not fit for keeping in apartments. They were not beginners’ birds.

Still the nanday at Kingsgate Mall had an irresistible gallantry, a willingness to hold his own in the face of much larger birds. On our second visit, we agreed to buy him, and to take him home after the folk festival. We did stop by on the way to the festival to feed him cherries, but we waited until the day after, which was Trish’s birthday, to pick him up.

We put him in the living room, and went out to dinner to give him time to adjust to his new surroundings. I was so excited that I could barely leave him, or eat when we got to the restaurant.

Somewhere along the line, though we agreed to call the bird Ningauble, after the insatiably curious and gossiping wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The wizard’s personality seemed to match the bird’s, and we were completely enchanted. What we didn’t know was that one of the most enduring features of our domestic life had arrived.

Read Full Post »

Reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk reminds me of my experiences of training parrots. The process is very different from the one that Macdonald describes, since parrots are more intelligent and more social than hawks. However, it requires the same patience and is as much about training you as the bird.

These days, the importing of parrots is banned for conservation reasons, so you rarely see wild birds. However, even handfed birds have to adjust to a new human, and many of the birds available today have been neglected or abused. As a result, the goal of parrot training remains the same as ever: to help the bird bond with you, and to teach them a few behaviors that can help keep them safe. Fortunately, you can usually accomplish both goals at once.

When you bring a new parrot home, place them in a cage where they can see what is going on around them. The cage should have a small tent or a corner covered with a cloth, where they can sit and peer out – most birds’ favorite position.

Before training, give the bird some time to adjust. Talk to them, and feed them by hand, let them come out of the cage if they want, but avoid the temptation to rush into training. Coming to a new place is enough of an adjustment without adding anything else. You can tell when a bird is ready for training, because their feathers will be relaxed and they may even make happy chuckling sounds.

When you start training, carry the bird to a small quiet room. I prefer to sit on the floor, in the hopes of looming less. Let the bird come out of the cage, and practice having the bird come up on a perch, both with and without command. This is a relatively non-threatening behavior to begin with, and can be useful for fetching the bird out of the small corners it may hide in if scared or alarmed. It is also useful for getting a bird down from a high place where you cannot easily reach.

When the bird steps up on the perch, praise them verbally, and offer a treat such as a nut or a piece of fruit. Keep each training sessions no longer than fifteen minutes, and in between sessions, continue talking and feeding the bird.

Once the bird steps consistently up on the perch, repeat the process with your hand, working up gradually to having the bird step up a ladder of hands. The exact training time depends on the bird, but ordinarily takes 3-10 days. Abused birds will take longer.

After this basic training is complete, start carrying the bird around their new home, both on your hand and on your shoulder. Show them where the windows are, and let them inspect the glass with their beak, so they know where it is and can avoid it. Feed them from your hand as much as possible, doing yur best not to flinch when you see the beak coming for your fingers. You will soon learn the difference between a friendly approach and a hostile one.

At this point, the praise, the food, the company and the training should be beginning to teach the bird that you are a friend. From there, it is simply a matter of time before you feel a stubby tongue reach out for the nearest part of you to preen you in friendship. An abused or neglected bird may take several years to start preening you, but may still enjoy your company in other ways.

However, whether the first preen arrives in a week or three years, there is no feeling quite like it. It means that you have learned to befriend a creature with the intelligence of a two to four year old human, and that they have learned to befriend you as well. Across the barriers of species and domestication, you have had your first contact with an alien intelligence.

Read Full Post »

Have you ever sat down to eat outside at a park or public market, only to be mobbed by seagulls looking for a handout? Change the species, and that scenario has become the norm for my dinner – and don’t tell me that two small parrots can’t be a mob, because my first hand experience proves that they can.

For years, I used to eat dinner with Ning and Sophie, and our cripple bird Ram with Trish. Since the deaths in the flock, Ram has taken to eating with me. I scoop him up on to my left shoulder as I come in from the kitchen, and almost before I sit down, he is rappelling down my arm after whatever has caught his attention on my plate – usually, potato, rice, or a piece of chicken. If his target is healthy for him, I put a small portion aside for him, and, when he is temporarily sated, he wanders around the table, pausing for a drink of fruit juice before clambering back up on me.

Beau, my other remaining bird, was a neglected bird, and, for years lacked the confidence to compete with the others – especially Ning, who had him thoroughly mentally dominated. Usually, I tried to make it up to him by offering him some juice before I sat down, but even that made him nervous.

Suddenly, two weeks ago, Beau suddenly found the courage to see what he was missing. He landed on the table with a thud and a small squawk (like most parrots, he is not the most graceful of landers), and started waddling towards my plate.

About thirty-five centimeters from the plate, Beau paused and retreated, keeping the diameter of the plate between him and Ram. With his head down, Ram was so busy making delighted noises and cramming his crop full that I’m not sure he even noticed Beau.

Moving slowly, I broke off a piece of roast potato and offered it to Beau. He grabbed it and retreated to the far end of the table. There, he adjusted his beak’s hold on the potato, and leaped as much as flew to his cage, retreating to its depths where he could enjoy the spoils of his raid undisturbed.

The next night, he repeated his visit. I could tell his growing confidence by the fact that he actually took my offering from the plate, and only retreated as far as the top of a Windsor chair to eat.

Since then, Beau hasn’t missed a night. It takes some alertness on my part. If I am slow to put aside Beau’s portion, he sometimes ventures to help him himself, always with a nervous air as if he is not sure of his right to be there, or as though he anticipates catastrophe if he puts a foot wrong.

At other times, however, he will show his impatience by trying to take a bite out of my book. And should the phone ring or some other unexpected event happens, both Beau and Ram take to the air, forming what the old Elizabethan madrigal described as “a shipwreck in the sky.” Since they both tend to take refuge on me, that usually means that sharp beaks and strongly flapping wings are all uncomfortably close to my face, and both reading and eating a hot dinner have to wait as I try to play peace keeper without one of them striking out at my fingers.

Dinner used to be a quiet time for me, but I’m not complaining. Beau and Ram are edging slowly to detente, and I’m happy to see Beau overcoming his timidness enough to claim his rights. Sometimes, I am tempted to put them in their cages for the night and have a quiet midnight supper, but that seems so lonely compared to dinner with the mob that, so far, I haven’t actually done that.

Read Full Post »

Recently, a number of scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration, stating their conviction that animals have conscious awareness. I was pleased to see among the signatories Irene Pepperberg, a personal hero and the leading expert in parrot intelligence, and I appreciate that so many people were willing to risk accusations of anthropomorphism and sentimentality. But, otherwise, the announcement mainly gave me the satisfaction of other people saying what I have known for years.

I have been convinced since childhood that at least some animals were self-aware to one degree or another. However, at least twice, this fact has hit me with the force of revelation.

The first time was shortly after Trish and I bought Ningauble, a Nanday conure. I was lounging on a futon by the window, and he was on my chest. As the sky darkened outside, Ning began to get agitated, indicating the direction of his cage with his whole body and making anxious noises.

I knew perfectly well that he wanted to be carried over to the cage, but I didn’t feel like moving. If he really wanted, he could fly there.

But after a few minutes of expressing his desire, Ning quietened. His head began to move, first to look at my toes and the end of the futon, then down to the floor and over to a chair beside his cage. He repeated the same eye movements several times, then marched along the path I have described, ending by climbing to the top of his cage and letting out one triumphant shriek.

Ning, I realized as a thin thrill of excitement passed through me, had just planned his route and followed it. He had at least a limited sense of the future, and enough awareness of himself to imagine doing something in the future. Of course he would have had an easier time if he had flown, but parrots’ intelligence rarely exceeds that of a three or four year old human, and he had all of a toddler’s obsessive tendencies.

This was not a random incident, either. Over the decades of living with parrots, I have seen Ning and all the other birds that have been through our house making simple plans and coming to a decision more times than I remember.

I particularly remember when each bird came to a decision and reached out to preen a human for the first time. Not only was it a sign of affection, but it has always been preceded by a moment of deliberation, as though the bird was deciding whether to extend trust. It has never been as unexpected as that moment of watching Ning, but the repetition showed that his planning was more everyday than something unusual.

The second moment was in early Spring. Trish and I were at Centennial Park on Burnaby Mountain when we noticed two ravens picking at the garbage bins outside the restaurant. We immediately observed that only one raven foraged at any given time; the other would perch, a little higher, shifting slightly and looking all around.

Over about half an hour, we worked our way cautiously closer. We were about ten meters away when a restaurant worker opened the door and tossed a big black bag of garbage into the bin before turning on his heels and disappearing inside again.

The ravens took the air. One landed on the grass about five meters of us. Abruptly, it realized how close we were, and looked up.

At once, I had a sense of being evaluated. My perception was not just based on the raven’s obvious wariness, or the fact that it was cocking its head as though to get a better view of us. It was the fact that I was close enough to look the raven in the eyes.

Once at a wildlife refuge, I had been eyed in the same way by a bald eagle separated from me by a wire cage. Its eyes were so mad that I could tell that its only thought was: Food? Not food?

By contrast, the raven seemed to be doing a more complex evaluation of us. Its wings were poised to take flight, but it seem to be risking a moment or two to be curious about us – even, perhaps, curious about our curiosity. What else the bird might be thinking about us I can only imagine, but what struck me was that looking it in the eye was exactly the same as looking a human in the eye. I was watching another patch of self-awareness watching me.

After about thirty seconds, we started to ease down to our knees, by unspoken agreement hoping that we would be less threatening if we looked smaller. But, as cautious as our movements were, they were enough for the raven to take to the air, flying over us with the single click of its beak. A moment later, both ravens were flying for a high stand of trees on the other side of the park.

Both these incidents took place years ago, but both have formed an important part of my thinking ever since. You might accuse me of an over-active imagination, but all I can say is that you would have had similar perceptions if you had been in the same position.

I hope that our planet will encounter aliens in my lifetime, but, if not, I won’t be too greatly disappointed. So far as I am concerned, my own first contacts with alien intelligences has already happened.

Read Full Post »

A recent study of hand prints in prehistoric caves shows that many of the hands were women’s. The media played up this fact as if it were surprising, although why it should be, I’m not sure, considering that we know almost nothing of the cultures responsible for the hand prints. But what caught my attention was a passing comment that a comparison of ancient and modern hand prints shows that the sexual dimorphism of humans was greater 40,000 years ago than today. In other words, men and women look more alike today than they once did.

This comment is interesting to me for several reasons. To start with, it is an example of how short a time is needed for evolution to take place. Forty millennia is a longer time than fifteen, which is about how long humans have been retaining the ability to digest milk into adulthood, but we tend to think of evolution in terms of millions of years – perhaps because establishing that the earth was ancient was a necessary part of proving the fact of evolution in the nineteenth century.

Just as importantly, this tidbit helps to answer those who suggest that civilization has stopped human evolution. Usually, the argument is that, because urban life and medical advances have decreased infant mortality, they have canceled out natural selection, the main mechanism of evolution. However, living to adulthood is only one aspect of natural selection. If nothing else, health and opportunity to reproduce are also part of natural selection.

In fact, it is often forgotten that sexual selection may be as important a mechanism for evolution in its own right. Since culture can determine all these things, it seems more reasonable that it simply because another set of criteria for adaptation, especially since such pieces of information are starting to accumulate to prove that evolution is still shaping humanity.

As to how humans are evolving, the greatest sexual dimorphism usually occurs in polygamous animals. Among gorillas, for instance, males are almost twice the size of females, and multiple mates are the norm for the males. By contrast, species that show little sexual dimorphism are usually monogamous or female-dominated. Given that humans show moderate sexual dimorphism, which seems to be decreasing, the natural conclusion is that we are descended from polygamous species, but evolving towards monogamy or egalitarianism, or perhaps female domination.

(In fact, although a couple of centuries would be an extremely short time for any evolutionary changes to be observable, I sometimes wonder if increased urbanism explains why each of the last few generations of women has been taller than the last, while men’s heights have increased less dramatically. Or perhaps the increased height of women is due to the fact than we have been moving away from societies based on hard labor. In such societies, men are often fed first so that they can continue to work, which opens the possibility that historically women were often underfed or even starved sometimes – an aspect of inequality that, so far as I am aware, has never been acknowledged or studied).

But if humans are becoming less sexually dimorphic, what does that imply for the future? I think I can suggest some answers, because, for much of my adult life, I have lived with a species of parrot that has so little sexual dimorphism that humans can only distinguish male from female reliably by surgical sexing or DNA samples. There are no external sex organs, and even sexual behavior is reliable, since homosexuality does exist.

I like to think that the lives of my parrots are a foretaste of what humans might be becoming. In my parrots, monogamy is the norm, and a hen is as likely to dominate as a cock. The sole exception is male territorial fights, which the hens generally ignore aside from being vaguely supportive of their mates (which amounts to the vague supportive chirp unless another male gets too close to their nests). Egg-sitting is largely, but not entirely the hen’s concern, but most males are supportive spouses and share in the care of chicks, especially immediately after they leave the nest.

The lives of my parrots are not completlye egalitarian, but they’re closer to that goal than anything the living generations of humans can boast. And as a supporter, I am tickled by the idea that feminists can probably state – with much more accuracy than evolutionary psychology usually manages – that evolution appears to be on their side.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »