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Posts Tagged ‘pets’

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.

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Today, my nanday conure Ninguable died, surviving his mate Sophie by just under thirteen months. He died in my hands. It was the last act in a relationship that had lasted twenty-eight years.

He had been listless for the past couple of days, but yesterday evening he had seemed to rally. However, the improvement didn’t last, and this morning he was lying on his back when I opened his cage. I thought him dead, and although he roused feebly, I knew he wouldn’t last out the day.

I had no means to euthanize him, and taking him to the vet would only make his last hours uncomfortable, so I sat with him through the day. He seemed to have suffered a stroke, because he struggled to move his left leg, growing testy at times.. Sometimes, he yawned with his beak tilted up. He didn’t show any signs of pain, just frustration. I was just putting him on to a towel in his cage bottom, so I could use the computer with one hand while stroking him with the other, when he collapsed beak first and twisted sideways.

For a moment, I swear I saw a light in his brown eyes. Then he was gone. I waited a few moments, but I knew what was left was no longer him. The time was shortly before 2PM.

Ning was our first parrot, and responsible for most of the others coming into our lives. We had been fascinated by a friend’s dwarf macaw, and had spent over a month looking for our own small parrot. We briefly considered a blue-crowned conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store, but debated if it was quite right. Then we saw Ning at the store in Kingsgate Mall, and immediately knew he was right for us.

Had we known what we knew a few years later, we probably wouldn’t have bought him. He was missing a nail on one foot, and part of a toe on another – a likely sign that he was wild caught, and had had his feet tangled in a net. Plus the store owner swore he was eighteen months old when by his markings he was under a year. Later, we realized he had probably been smuggled into the country, an abusive practice that we wouldn’t have wanted to support.

But he was so feisty among all the much larger birds in the room, hanging from the bars of his cage and trying to attract the attention of the red lory who was the only bird of his size. We put a deposit on him, and stopped on our way to the Vancouver Folk Festival to feed him cherries and grapes, all of which he greedily devoured.

On Trish’s birthday, we brought him home. We left him to acclimatize while we went out to dinner, but we were both so excited that we could hardly eat. We named him Ningauble, after the ever-curious wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

In the next few weeks, I worked with several times a day in the spare room, teaching him to climb up on a presented perch, then on a finger, feeding him and praising him loudly as a reward.

In the evenings, I would take him out and herd him on to my shoulder, where he would sit nervously before starting off. He couldn’t fly much, because we had clipped his wings, but that didn’t slow him much. He would glide as far as he could, and resolutely trudge along the floor and up the furniture until he reached his cage.

One evening, we were sitting reading when he reached over and gently preened my hair. Between my nervousness that he would bite my ear and my delight at this sign of trust, I hardly dared to move. But the next evening, he preened one side of my hair followed by the back, careful not to miss a spot, before giving up.

He seemed relieved to realize finally that he wasn’t responsible for all my hair, and after a few more evenings, settled down to a token preen in return for having his ear holes and neck scratched. He would sit and preen me for a couple of hours, then waddle down the couch to Trish to give her a couple of hours of attention.

I was in grad school at the time, and used to work in the spare room we had converted into a library. For a while, I used to take Ning into the library, since he would scream for me if I left him in the living room. Unfortunately, he would not only wander the shelves flinging books off, but also produce what our local used bookseller called parroted editions that had been thoroughly chewed to the point where they were unsellable.

After a couple of years, we decided he needed a mate, so we brought home Sophie, a malnourished, abused bird. Our plans to quarantine her for a month were immediately overturned when the only way to keep them from calling from room to room was to introduce them. Under our anxious eye, Ning jumped into Sophie’s cage and immediately started regurgitating to her.

If Sophie could talk, I swear she would have said, “Excuse me, sir? Have we been introduced?” but they immediately became inseparable, eventually going on to produce six chicks, one of whom is still with me, and one who returned to us before dying at a young age from the second hand smoke in a home where he briefly lived.

Ning wasn’t that skilled at feeding babies. But he kept Sophie fed while she was brooding, and delighted in teaching them the basics when they left the nest. At that point, Sophie was glad to pass along the responsibility, and Ning always pined when the babies went to other homes.

Because of the trouble and heartbreak of finding new homes for the babies, we eventually stopped allowing eggs to hatch. But Ning and Sophie didn’t seem unduly troubled. They continued in happy monogamy, with Ning in the adventurous lead and Sophie chirping nervously behind, but following him – on to the floor, or up on my shoulder, where they would sit preening each other and occasionally me while I worked on the computer.

In between, Ning would have territorial wars with the other male birds housed in the living room, always with the psychological edge. Although not particularly large for a nanday, his electric blue and green feathers showed he was the epitome of health. And, anyway, he was the cock with the hen.

He also showed an uncanny ability to find what unsettled his rivals the most at the least risk to him – for instance, sitting just inside another male’s territory on the floor, in a spot where he couldn’t be dive bombed.

And so things went on, the living room full of bird calls, affection and avian macho, until I got into the habit of thinking they might go on forever. But Trish sickened and died, and, five months later, Sophie died. Ning responded by a fit of macho, rampaging around the dining table until it was clear that this previously neutral ground was now his. He was also inclined to mope unless he spent as much time as possible with me – something I didn’t mind in the least, considering we were widowers together.

In the mornings, when I came to open the curtains, he would greet the sound of my voice with a liquid trill that would continue for up to a minute — one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard, and one I wish now that I had got around to recording.

Despite his increasing age, Ning showed few signs of slowing down until the last four months of his life. One day, waddling over the carpet, he stopped and began biting furiously at his right wing. When I picked him up, I could find no damage, but he never flew far again. Instead, he would call anxiously to me, squirming until I picked him up and carried him to where he wanted to be. By this time, I could guess his destination with almost total accuracy.

I had seen similar signs in Sophie, but, considering Ning’s better health, I had hopes that his senior years would be prolonged. Until a few days ago, I even had hopes that with therapy he might fly freely again, since several times he managed short flights when frustrated.

As I write, it’s six hours after his death. I’ve taken his body to be cremated, and removed his cage from the living room – and I still keep looking for him as I type. He’s the one who taught me that parrots had sentience and limited planning abilities. He’s the one who kept me amused with his unabashed enthusiasm, and supported me with a preen and by hanging out when I was discouraged or grieving. He’s the one who taught me that parrots can purr.

Given all this, what could I do but sit with him in his final hours? I talked to him about our years together, sang him his favorite silly songs, and repeated my pet names for him. I cried over the inevitable before it happened and I hoped for a miracle, knowing I wouldn’t get one.

And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it. Because those are the sort of things you do for a friend. The only shame would have been to leave him to die alone, and my only comfort is that I did for him what I could.

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“In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says, ‘I can’t fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings’”
– “Charlie and the King of Rome”

This morning when I took the cover off the cage, my parrot Sophy was lying on one side, with her mate Ning hovering over her. She didn’t open her eyes, and her breathing was labored. I scooped her up and put her on the table, and she barely opened her eyes. I knew then that she was dying, so I decided that cleaning the cages would wait.

Sophy had been in a convalescence cage for the last few days after she slipped from a perch and started favoring her left leg. But her appetite was healthy and she was otherwise acting normally; the convalescence cage was just so she wouldn’t climb until her leg was better. Last night when I put her and Ning to bed, she was moving better, and I was cautiously optimistic that she was healing.

But she was thirty years old – old for her species — and had been growing quieter over the last year, so her condition this morning was not a total surprise. I debated taking her to the vet, and decided she was better at home, where she could be in the company of her flock when she died. Besides, the way she looked, I was not sure she would live long enough to arrive at the vet, or that the vet could do anything I couldn’t.

So I sat there as the sun rose, scratching her ear and trying to fed her corn. She refused the corn, and the loving regurgitation of Ning. In fact, she seemed to have trouble waking at all.

When the sun poured into the living room, I stood with her for a while so she could bask in the light, something she would do for hours, given a chance. The sun on her feathers roused her, but only a little. I placed her back on the table and continued waiting, scratching her neck feathers.

A few minutes later, she shifted her head awkwardly once or twice, as though trying to get comfortable. The eye that I could see grew misty. She seemed to stiffen, and all at once she had stopped breathing. Ning prodded her with his beak, and, when she did not respond, moved a body’s length away, preening himself with an air of apprehension.

That was the end of my twenty-four year relationship with Sophia J. (for Jabberwock) Bandersnatch. It was an end that I could hardly have predicted from the start.

When we bought Sophy from the bird-sitter, she had been neglected and abused for several years. She had no tail-feathers, and she had plucked her breast. Recognizing her as a nanday conure was so hard that we almost had to take the fact on faith.

We were told that she had locked in a cage for at least three years, and fed only on sunflower seeds. When she made a noise, a hand or a thrown boot hit the side of her cage. The only noise she could make was an outraged squawk.

Under these conditions, what could we do? If ever a bird needed rescuing, it was Sophy. When the bird-sitter reported back to her original owner that we found that she had a sweet personality, his reply was, “Sophy has a personality?” – more proof, if we had needed any, that he had no idea how to care for her.

When we brought her home, we placed her in the spare room, thinking to quarantine her for a month before introducing her to Ning. But the two birds started calling so excitedly that after a couple of hours, we brought Ning in for a visit.

We were ready to supervise, but there was no need. Ning leaped down off my shoulder and sidled up to her on the perch and immediately started regurgitating. Sophy made a stifled sound of surprise, as though to say, “Excuse me, sir, but have we been introduced?” but her objections could not have been too serious. Moments later, they were mating.

After that, Sophy and Ning were nearly inseparable, eating, bathing, playing with chew toys, climbing up on me. Always, in season and out, they mated, even on my shoulder. If one of them strayed more than the width of the living room, the other would start making anxious squawks. Ning was the more independent and aggressive of the two, but we soon noticed that anything Sophy wanted, she got. In anything she cared about, she was the dominant bird.

With Ning as her companion, Sophy blossomed and started to accept us. She would go everywhere with him, even occasionally down on the floor, which she obviously regarded as a dangerous place. I remember the two of them constantly worrying a small tin back and forth as though playing football.

One time, she crawled into one of Trish’s boots that was lying flat on the floor. She made an inquisitive cheep and, frightened by the echo, retreated squawking.

Over the next couple of years, her feathers grew in. But she remained an over-zealous preener, so that her feathers often looked ragged and you could see the gray of her down on her breast.

A few years later, she was healthy enough that she started laying eggs. The first one surprised her as much as it did us. She kept looking behind her at the egg, as if she could not quite believe that she had produced it.

Other eggs followed – so many at first, that she became egg-bound had to visit the vet just after Christmas. Ning moped around, and, early on New Years’ Day, we took him to pick her up. His rapturous purr as he started preening her in the examination room was as true a sign of devotion as you could see anywhere.

We bought a nest box, and watched her excavate the peat moss that lined it to her liking. Soon, eggs and hatchlings followed – Frumious (because what else should a Bandersnatch produce?), Jabberwock, and Rambunctious, Rogue and Rapscallion, and Madrigal, all born in the living room. Sophy would spend hours cooing over her hatchlings, over-preening them but caring for them fastidiously until they were weaned. Once they were eating for themselves, they were Ning’s concern for a few months so far as she was concerned, and she always seemed relieved when her offspring left for new homes.

A flock, a mate, and babies mellowed Sophy immensely. She never was much for hands after her previous experience, but she came to trust us enough that she would simply press her beak firmly around an encroaching finger, instead of drawing blood.

We knew that she trusted us, because every morning, she would lean from the top of the cage to preen our faces, more gently than any parrot I have ever met. She was the only bird I trusted to preen my eyes, because even a sudden noise would not excite her into nipping me. When I lowered a shoulder, she would scramble across the cage, careless of any obstacles, to climb up on me.

She would sit for hours on my shoulder, with or without Ning, as I worked at the computer. Sometimes, I would sing silly songs to her, and she would shake her tall and fluff out contentedly just at the corner of my vision.

I could go on and on – but I see that I already have. But I can hardly remember a time that her playful and loving presence was not part of my home life. All the birds were a comfort to me in the weeks after my wife died, but she was the one who sat with me the most, and seemed most sensitive to my grief. In return, remembering her sitting contentedly on one leg on the back of the cage, I like to think that we helped her put the years of abuse and neglect behind her.

As I type, Ning is restless, hopping from my shoulder to the table to the floor, and flying up to the cage. He keeps looking around as though expecting to see her, and is unable to keep still.

Without any anthropomorphizing whatsoever, I know exactly how he feels. Even after watching her die, I still can’t believe that gallant little Sophy is gone.

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After four years, our parrot Beau has changed his behavior. In the last month, he’s started seeking us out to preen us.

If you know nothing about parrots, you probably don’t realize what a milestone that is. It’s not the same as a cat enjoying having its stomach scratched, or a dog licking your face. Cats and dogs can learn to enjoy interacting with humans in these ways, but these are not the behaviors of mature animals. They are the behaviors of very young animals that cats and dogs have kept because they are rewarded for them, and because they are pleasurable.

By contrast, parrots of all ages preen – not just their mates or their young, but other parrots in the flock as well. Partly, exchanging preens is a necessity, because, like many birds, parrots have places they just can’t reach themselves, such as behind the head and under the beak. Moreover, feather cases growing in can be uncomfortable.

But, just as importantly, preening is an important part of the complex, ever-shifting relationships in a flock. Who preens who (and in what order) can be a matter of status as well as trust. A parrot needs to preen and be preened almost as much as he or she needs water and varied food. For a parrot, preening is not just an indulgence; denied this social interaction, a parrot is unhappy and often despondent.

All this is true at any time, but it is even truer when a parrot chooses to preen a human. Parrots raised among humans may reach the necessary level of trust quicker than a wild parrot, but even a hand-fed one does not have the long history of domestication than a cat or a dog has. Even today, most domestic parrots are no more than a few generations removed from the wild. They are not creatures selected over centuries for subservience to humans.

Parrots that preen a human may be desperate for interaction, but they are still choosing to trust. Equal to equal, they are expressing friendship.

For these reasons, a preen by a parrot is not anything that you can take for granted. But it is especially touching in a neglected parrot like Beau, particularly since he has taken so long to reach this stage. We adopted Beau four years ago from the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary, and he arrived in our house with baggage. He may have lost a mate, and he had apparently spent several years exiled to a laundry room, with only the sound of the washing machine and dryer for company. He may have been in mourning when he arrived in our house (parrots do mourn), and he was definitely seriously under-socialized.

When not crazed by his own hormones in the spring, in the past, Beau would accept a brief neck scratch, and sometimes a tickle under his wing, but, until now, he has not been much interested in returning the favor.

Now, he is preening with a persistence and enthusiasm that he never had before. If a hand is nearby, he will start preening between fingers or knuckles. If an arm is nearby, he will start on the arm hairs. But what he seems to like best is to scurry up a shoulder and preen hair and cheeks for minutes at a time.

As a veteran of decades of bird preens, I can tell he is tentative. But mostly he is eager, almost as though making up for lost time. His preening can be a little nerve-wracking, because ears tend to get him so excited that he bites, but gradually he is learning the rules, just as I am learning to relax under his ministrations.

Despite my nervousness, I feel honored by the change. I always do, but, in this case, I also take the preening as a sign that his rehabilitation is nearly complete. Like many parrots, Beau may never completely recover from being abused, but at least now we know for sure that he has made progress to a more normal life, and is comfortable in his new surroundings.

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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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