Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fair Feathered Friends: Why the companion bird may just be man (and woman's) next best friend

Baby parrots in a pet shop.
photosource: wikimedia.commons
The idea of a caged pet is generally what comes to mind when one thinks about having a bird around the house. Indeed, the popularity of keeping birds as caged animals around human dwellings can be traced as far back to the days of the Roman Empire. During the spread of his influence across the lands of Europe and Asia, Alexander the Great collected, during his conquests, and maintained a large collection of exotic birds from the East. Among his favorite, which he brought back to Rome, were the parrots. Large, green birds from Punjab, with long tails and the uncanny ability to mimic human speech. Over the years, these birds grew to be very popular in private and public collections and were enjoyed and marveled at by royalty and commoners alike. Indeed, the astounding beauty of most bird species, their abilities of song and speech, and their capacity for flight have long been a point of inspiration and interest for human cultures around the world. In the contemporary household of today, many birds are still being kept as caged animals because of the value humans place on these astounding qualities, but there has also been an increasingly popular trend among animal lovers to housing various kinds of birds, typically the medium to large parrot species, as companion animals instead.  

A companion parrot, differs from a caged bird, because of the inordinate amount of time it spends with the family, and participating in family-like activities. Like many conventional companion animals, such as cats an dogs, the companion parrot is one that will thrive on constant and regular attention from its human family. While the popularity of having companion birds have grown significantly over the years, there are still many among the general animal lovers community who generally retain some reservations on placing parrots on par with cats, or dogs. A parrot, however can be just as good as, or an even better, companion animal than a cat or dog. Speaking as an individual who has lived with many kinds of animals for most of my life I can certainly attest this to be true. For the benefit of everyone else who may have reservations about adding a rescue parrot to their household, however, here are four compelling arguments as to why a companion parrot may just be an eligible candidate for that position. 

Advancements in bird-keeping methods have resulted in the development of tools such as the flight harness, which can facilitate a bird's participation in a family's oudoor activities in a safe and secure manner.
Photosource: Wikimedia.commons
The African Gray parrot is one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
Photosource: Wikimedia.commons
The term bird-brained is generally used as an insult, to refer to an individual who is particularly slow, or dim-witted but in my opinion the good folks who coined the term probably have never met with a parrot or a magpie not even once in their life. In a laboratory setting, where such birds are exposed to a focused, learning environment, parrots have exhibited an array of impressive abilities and skills once thought to be accessible only to humans or higher orders of primates such as vocal recognition skills, facial perception, stringing together complex sentences and associating words with concepts for communication, and many more. In the famous but controversial Avian Language experiment, an African Gray Parrot named Alex was able to coin the term "banerry", in reference to an apple which was red on the outside but yellow on the inside, after learning only the words cherry and banana to refer to the other fruits, respectively. This demonstrates not only an ability for word association, but an understanding of concepts such as colors. 

As a companion animal, this translates into a highly adaptive and clever animal that is capable of not only understanding instructions, but also of forming complex and unique responses to facilitate interaction with their human families. Like many companion animals, parrots can be potty trained and taught to perform tricks. However, unlike some other animals, parrots can also be socialized so that their lifestyles more closely resembles that of their human companions. A parrot, for instance, may quickly learn to use only his "inside voice" around family members who are sensitive to loud noises if he is socialized as such from a young age. Similarly, if he is disciplined by all but spoiled rotten by one, a parrot can quickly learn who is who in his family and thus, who he can boss around and achieve results! 


The Red bellied parrot is known to have a boisterous personality
Fun fact: Did you know that in the wild, baby parrots are named by their parents! That's right, in a study conducted on wild nesting parrots, it was discovered that baby parrots were recorded in their nest boxes and found to respond individually to unique vocalizations that were made by the parent birds that were in turn ascribed to each, individual chick. This naming behavior is unique and almost unheard of in any other animal except for humans and while many will insist, based on their own anecdotal evidence, that their own housecats or dogs can both understand and respond to their names, it is perhaps only parrots that are naturally and biologically predisposed to such behavior as humans are from the very start.  It is thus interesting to note that conventional wisdom surrounding the culture of "naming" things seems to suggest that naming distinguishes that individuals among a particular species are capable of exhibiting a remarkable and sophisticated level of differentiation and personality. In other words, self-awareness. One can only imagine what life must be like living in constant contact with an animal that is not only crafty and intelligent but (potentially) self-aware as well! Many of us parronts (that is, parrot's parents) will swear that our birds are very much like small feathered human beings and in many ways, we wouldn't be too far from the truth, Of course self-awareness also means that a bird can develop as wide a range of emotional and psychological problems as humans, typically when they are ignored, abused or left alone. On the one hand, this trait of many parrots makes for amazing and wonderful companions but on the other, also mean that they are not the kind of animal that can be left out of day-to-day familial interactions and activities.


The Green Cheek Conure is one of the most cuddliest of parrots around
Photosource: Wikimedia.commons
Birds are probably not the kind of animal that is generally known for their loyalty but I personally believe that this is a misconception that was probably brought about from the bird's history as a caged animal. A companion bird that is given the chance to socialize and integrate with its household will literally become an affectionate animal that thrives upon hours upon hours of physical and social interaction. Birds, in this way, will enjoy a family member simply talking to them and telling them about their day, as much as they will enjoy physical play time. In their natural habitats, parrots often live in large social groups because, among other things, they simply enjoy each other's company! Anyone who has seen lorikeets in the wild will be able to tell you how much time is spent on eating and foraging and how much more on playing, preening, squabbling, and "chatting". This truly translates into an animal that will genuinely enjoy the presence of his or her human companion regardless of whether or not the things they are doing truly coincides. Your parrot may simply enjoy being allowed to play with his toys next to you on the sofa the same way you may enjoy simply having your partner sit with you in a room even though you may not be doing anything together at the time. Incidentally, birds are also notorious displayers of public affection and some of the cuddlier species will enjoy spending hours upon hours of giving and receiving cuddles from their human companions (do note, however that not all spots on a bird's body are cuddle-safe or friendly and may in fact stimulate unwanted breeding behavior). Many of these traits coupled with the fact that a favored human companion is essentially a bird's mate, and most birds mate for life, means that you will have a companion that will likely be bonded to you unconditionally to the very end.


This Major Mitchell's Cockatoo named Cookie lives at the Brookfield Zoo and is believed to be AT LEAST 75 years, possibly older!
Photosource: Wikimedia.commons.

There is little in life that is more painful than the loss of a companion animal. As someone that has recently lost his faithful dog of 15 years I can only tell you that it is impossible to prepare yourself for when the time comes. Fortunately this will not be the case with many of my birds. At least not for several decades down the road. As most birds go, parrots are generally very, very, veerryyyyy long lived animals. The average lifespan for some of the smaller parrots such as budgerigars can easily outmatch those of many dog breeds at 15-17 years of age, while medium sized parrots like conures usually live for about 25-35 years with proper care. The larger species of birds, the cockatoos from Australia, or the Macaws from South America, however take the cake as well cared for companion birds have been noted to have lifespans of 90 years or so, some even living well into their hundreds! Though this reason may pale in comparison to some of the other arguments I have made in favor of birds as companion animals, this is perhaps one of the most practical of reasons for those who are seeking to form lifelong bonds with animals as a companion bird can literally be the animal that one grows old with. 


Because of their high intelligence and their long lives, however, living with a parrot is a lifelong commitment that no one should ever take likely. Most parrots are bought on a whim and are later rehomed less than 2 years later. Unfortunately, not all parrots adjust to this process adequately and may miss their human families and households so much that they develop self-mutilation and other destructive behaviors that can make them even harder to rehome. Always do your research before deciding to adopt or buy a parrot, and make sure that the breeder or rescuer allows you to spend time with the bird so that you might get used to his mannerisms and volume (and he, you!) before you ultimately decide to bring one home. 


  1. A very good read. Give me a parrot over any other animal any day!

    1. I have lived with many animals and nothing can beat a good companion parrot in my books!!! :)


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