How to Feed Your Baby Bird

Feeding Your New Grey Baby Doesn’t Have to be Scary

by Jean Pattison

Editor’s Note: Not all members of the avian community feel it’s appropriate to bring a new bird into your life before it’s weaned/fledged/eating solid food. Whatever the circumstances may be that have brought a very young bird into your life, there’s no judgment here. Congratulations on this extraordinary experience with a young and precious life! Let’s now learn from an extraordinary woman’s decades of experience in hand-feeding baby parrots so we all know how to do it right.

African Grey Jean Pattison Illustration Airway OpenHand-feeding a baby parrot was one of the scariest things I have ever done.

I grew up in the city of Chicago, but I spent my summers on my grandparent’s farm. My granddad taught me so much about animals, the love and respect he showed was a big influence in my life. He would come in and tell me “I have something to show you” and he would take my hand and we would go out to the pasture, or barn, or hedgerow. He would sit with me and taught me to be very still and just watch. I watched barn swallows build nest, and fed their young, I saw tadpoles hatching, and mommy bunny uncover her babies and get in their nest to feed. When my granddad came in and said, “Give me your hand, I have something to show you”, I knew I was about to see a miracle. The one thing I wanted more than anything was to raise a baby bird, but my grandparents always told me, “If you take it away from its parents, it will die. You just can’t do that”. One day I found a baby bird had fallen from a nest and I snuck it into the house and tried to feed it. It of course died and broke my heart, and I cried and cried. Naturally I had to confess, with all that crying after all. I also felt I disappointed my grandparents.

I wanted a farm when I grew up, but chances of that happening years later wasn’t something I could ever see happening. Well, many years later here I am, a farmer. Not with cows and pigs, but parrots.

My first bird was a Jenday conure. I had purchased her from a little hobby breeder close to my home. I went and visited a few times a week. The woman was meticulous with cleanliness, and sanitizing everything. I watched her syringe feed the tiny chick. She would tell my how easy it was to aspirate, and how everything had to be perfect, and how fragile they were. Such a scary experience. I was always worried something would go wrong if she made one tiny mistake.

I had my first pair of Senegals go to nest, and I asked her to feed them for me when I took them from the parents. I was so scared when I took the chicks from their nest; I was shaking like a leaf. I kept hearing my grandparent’s warnings about taking baby birds from the parents.

My dream was to have a pair of greys. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for”. Anyway, this breeder also fed those babies for me, and a few clutches after that. As I obtained more pairs of greys, my best friend opened a bird only store, so she took over the hand-feeding. I now had to take chicks and drive them for over an hour away. More stress.

Five years later, having never fed a chick, my best friend was closing her store and no more hand-feeding. I thought I was going to faint. I had about 30 baby African greys coming into the nursery in about two weeks. Her answer to me was, “that’s why I am giving you a two week notice, but I will be there if you need me”, and she was, as well as many other breeders when I needed them. In the late evening I gathered my 30 some babies into my nursery. They had been fed by the parents and would be hungry in the morning, as well as me getting good nights sleep. I threw up most of the night terrified at my daunting task, so very little sleep. In the morning I mixed food, got syringes ready. The babies were hungry and they pumped like crazy, but with my shaking so bad, it was hit or miss. It took me three hours and multiple making of new food trying to keep it warm, but I did it.

Fast forward 34 years, and 100s of babies through those years, I sure learned a lot in a very short time especially dealing with only the African parrots. Many things with that many of a single species quickly falls into place. I must note, all my chicks are parent-fed in outside aviaries, so they have a pretty well developed immune system. They are completely different than dealing with incubator hatched chicks.

handfeeding instrumentsSince I learned to feed with a syringe, this is what I still use. I have used every other instrument available since I started, as distasteful as they may seem.

I had taken a Q-tip with a bit of warm water to clean a chick’s mouth. While doing so, I found I had to hold on to it. There seemed to be a pulling motion trying to pull it out of my fingers. I kind of played with the experience and found that if I relaxed it a bit, it felt like the bird would swallow it while the chick was pumping. When a chick pumps the head rapidly bobs up and down. This motion works in unison with the parent’s pumping while they are feeding the chick.

So what have I learned?

  1. Baby birds are not nearly as fragile as we all think, and they are very resilient!
  2. The opening of a parrot’s airway is in their tongue, and not in the back of their throat.
  3. Lots of other things, maybe for another article some day.
African Grey Parrot Papillae Airway
Note the papillae inside the bird’s mouth. These are the little points on each side of the back of the mouth. Learn to look at these and know what they should look like in your species of bird. Many health issues can be seen by how healthy the papillae are. Next time you visit your veterinarian, ask her to show them to you and what to look for.

When a bird is breathing through the nares (nostrils), the tongue is resting against the roof of the mouth. Air is traveling through the nares, through the hole in the tongue, to the trachea in the throat, (not the back of the mouth), and then into the internal airways.

When a chick has its mouth open and starts to pump the hole in the tongue closes and anything beyond that point is like a funnel to the esophagus. A hand-feeder in reality can feed from the left or right or even in the middle. Most have learned the bird’s left to bird’s right method, and it is an easy, comfortable position anyway. Many hand-feeders feeding day ones or macaws will often feed from both sides to prevent any beak misalignment. With day ones, hand-feeders will stretch their necks straight and insert a small feeding tip and go right down the middle into the esophagus. But, even tiny day one babies pump and while pumping the airway is closed so food can be just drizzled into their mouths.

So, when we use any of the instruments that go into the crop, we are not working around a maze of trachea and esophagus. Once past the closed hole in the tongue, the rest is open to any food or object inserted, leading to the crop. If someone uses latex or catheter tubing, or metal gavage, once the baby starts to pump its head the object slides right in, or is pulled in. There is nothing forceful using this technique. The pulling motion is more muscle contractions than it is actual swallowing. After all how could a bird “swallow” a Q-tip?

If you ever decide to hand-feed find a mentor and DON’T be scared.

The Thinking Parrot—Part 2

Hypotheses and Experiments in Parrot Communication

by CB Buckley

In Part 1, I covered different kinds of gesturing and other non-verbal communication by parrots. I also documented specific instances of how parrots use deceit, which is considered to be one of the scientific measures of intelligence. Some of the advanced examples of parrot communication included parrots sharing information with one-another and made-up games using vocalizations.

We still have trouble interpreting parrot behavior because not only are birds complex creatures, but they relate to things differently than we humans do. Even so, there is a lot about the way any brain is organized to give us some hints. We look for similarities where we can recognize the impetus for the actions we observe.

The focus of this Part 2 article is to correlate what we observe in our parrots with how their brains might be processing information. In other words…why is my parrot doing that?

PATTERN RECOGNITION

Pattern recognition and pattern matching is a central part of parrot cognition. Parrots’ detailed pattern recognition ability allows them to stay safe by recognizing when there’s been any change in their environment. One small change may mean the presence of predators, and puts them on high alert. This instinct is what causes the fear of change that we experience in our homes.

One can see parrot vocalizations that are triggered by environmental events appear to be tied to pattern recognition. Many people have posted videos and described how their parrots will say, “Hello,” or recite conversations whenever the phone rings. When we pick up keys, our African grey (Psittacus erithacus) has learned the door is about to open, so she now makes a door sound every time keys jingle.

I’ve observed that once parrots have learned a pattern, they actually compete with each other to be the first to sound-off when an event occurs. Like kids (“Me-me-me! I saw it first!”), the “clever” one who first recognizes one of those patterns will scream in excitement. Conure parrots are surely quick to notice (and loudly announce) “suspicious” activity. They have been described as the “security alarm” of the jungle.

It is commonly accepted that other animals, such as feline cubs, will play pouncing and wrestling games as a precursor to becoming accomplished hunters. Similarly, the bird vocalization “competitions” would help parrots hone their skills for keeping an eye on their environment, for recognizing signs that certain events are about to happen, and for their reaction time in spotting and warning the flock of the impending danger.

Recent findings by Comins and Gentner, indicate that the mechanism for pattern recognition is also what allows for human speech development. Therefore, it’s not surprising the two would go together in parrots.

THEORY THAT “PARROTING” IS A THOUGHT PROCESS

I’m sure you’ve seen how parrots often resemble hyperactive kids. While Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a problem in modern human society, scientists have postulated how it would have been an advantage for early man…and very likely an advantage for parrots in the wild. In other words, ADHD would be a good survival trait.

There has already been a precedent set where researchers have found a correlation between parrot Feather-picking Disorder and human Trichotillomania (obsessive hair-pulling). And, there may be other similar traits that are normally part of the parrot psyche.

Similarly, I have seen an intriguing parallel between parrot mimicking and a Tourette-like tic. One of the symptoms of Tourette syndrome is involuntary verbal outbursts—usually triggered by a strong emotion when thinking about specific things. That corresponds to an already well-established relationship, in which it is common knowledge how parrots tend to prefer to mimic sounds they associate with high emotion.

With African greys in particular, it seems they “say” what they are thinking. When we enter the kitchen, our grey (Bobo) will be getting excited about meal time and make the sound associated with food preparation—the microwave beep. She thinks about it and the sound comes out. When eager for a snack, she may also spontaneously run through some phrases parroting-style that she associates with having acquired treats or food in the past. Furthermore, I have overheard her quietly making the microwave sound to herself when it gets close to dinnertime.

  • There are additional incidents not related to food where we’ve seen the same kind of vocalizations.
  • The grey will say out loud, “Bobo walk,” as she plods across the floor.
  • The grey will say, “No bite,” as she is reaching for a forbidden object.
  • The conures cannot help but “announce” their nefarious activity if they fly over to an area designated as “off.”

Observing African greys is most helpful due to their being able to articulate speech and sounds well enough that we can attempt to follow their trains of thought. Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s subject, Alex the Grey, would interrupt his work sessions with unrelated comments and phrases. However, his “off-topic” antics were not random—they had to do with his mind wandering to other activities that he was thinking about: “Wanna go back,” “Wanna nut,” “Wanna go eat dinner.”

IMAGINING A DIFFERENT ACTIVITY

There is another kind of “parroting” activity many people have witnessed. Parrots will recite out loud a bunch of their known (and sometimes new) speech and sounds—often adjacent to their sleep time.  Being prey, parrots may not be able to afford the luxury of a full, deep REM sleep (REM allows the mammalian brain to organize and store experiences). So, I am proposing a hypothesis that parrots may do the REM equivalent in a wakeful state, manifesting those vocalizations. Whether my particular hypotheses are correct or not, we need to allow for the possibility that what appears to be random parroting really has purpose in the mind of the parrot.

DANCING, SYMBOLS, AND COUNTING

Parrots not only sing, but they dance—which is considered rare among animals. Could an awareness of beats help with counting and numbers? It’s very curious the way my Nanday conure (who likes to dance to music) keeps a beat and expresses numbers. She has an obsession with number series and patterns. She loves to play a “number game” with me.

When the Nanday was a baby, she used to start with a solitary squeak and then wait until I replied with a similar squeak (best as I could). She would then increment to two squeaks and wait for my two-squeak reply. This would continue in perfect sequence up to around seven.

I was fascinated to learn that a similar numerical progression was documented in a paper about the caws of wild crows.  At the time I first noticed it with my Nanday, I was not familiar with Miller’s Law, which theorizes a cut-off of seven for the human brain.

Yet, as she got older, the Nanday would do many more squeaks than seven. She arrived at her select number of squeaks by incorporating a beat sequence. It’s not quite counting…it’s specific patterns of multiple squeaks/squawks, like a drum-beat pattern.

This is a lot more difficult to capture on video without interrupting her. I did record an example of how she leads this game and the sound patterns. In that video, she was using clicks rather than notes/chirps. You can view the reference video here. “Parrot Uses Beat Pattern to Count—FlyChomperFly Research Series: DANCE SYMBOLS COUNTING Game”

An owner of a Timneh Grey reported that her parrot also plays a complex-tone game with her. In that case, it’s not a counting game, but a “match this sound” game—where if the human doesn’t get the sound right, the grey will precisely repeat it for her. So, it’s clearly not just random squawks—it’s an intentional, interactive game.

I wonder if these games could give insight into how parrots organize numbers? Determining how birds go about organizing numbers (sans language) has been researched by several scientists without conclusive results.

BRAIN PROCESSING OF VOCALIZATIONS

There is a notable pattern to parrot brain information processing that I’ve observed.  While parrots can whistle or sing songs, they universally tend to do so in segments.  A human child capable of singing a whole song, will do the same thing.  But a parrot will pause longer between stanzas, and may even abandon the song completely.

We could assume that parrots have less memory capacity for storing longer strings of information. Alternatively, there could be some restrictions in the way their brain retrieves the information—possibly shorter “packets” of data—to give them quicker response times (a survival benefit). Given how the ability to hold more information at a time has been linked to higher general intelligence in human brains, I am thinking it could be one of the factors limiting parrots’ cognitive skills.

My other hypothesis is that a parrot’s lack of continuity could also be due to their brain “interrupts” (similar to how interrupts work in a computer). Because parrots are prey, they need to be constantly on the alert for predators. They cannot afford to take their minds off of their environment for more than a short interval, or it could be fatal. They probably have to constantly interrupt their thought processes in order to check the area for danger—before returning back to their original task (if ever).

I have experimented and found that my Jenday conure cannot keep her eyes focused on any activity for longer than about six seconds. No matter how engrossed she is with the object or activity, her eyes will automatically avert to check the environment about every six seconds. We humans have the luxury of being able to focus without having to watch our backside every few seconds.

Scientists now have evidence that some of our human attention-deficit tendencies are a throwback to when early humans were living in more dangerous situations.  A parrot’s lack of long-term focus doesn’t mean the bird is less intelligent.  However, it becomes a disadvantage when trying to concentrate on something long enough to puzzle out an intricate problem.  Having removed constant threats could be a reason we are able to see some incredible aptitudes with our domestically bred parrots.

EVIDENCE OF LANGUAGE SYNTAX BY PARROTS

Scientists have had limited success in proving language syntax usage by non-humans. Arguably, the most successful are probably dolphins. In spite of Alex the Grey not being trained in language syntax, Pepperberg documented how he continued to insert new nouns into a syntactically proper sentence in order to express his “wants.” In a 2013 study, Kaufman, Colbert-White and Burgess were able to statistically confirm that an African grey was parsing out individual words from learned phrases and incorporating them into novel yet appropriate context (“contextual substitutability”), maintaining correct syntax.

When our grey, Bobo, was a baby, we had talked to her in fairly short phrases such as, “Gimme a kiss,” “Let’s go for a walk,” and “Good girl, Bobo.” Yet, she did not memorize the exact phrases as just symbols or units. She understood they were made up of individual words—apparently recognized which were the actionable words—as she ended up stripping out the unneeded words similar to a two-year-old. “Good girl, Bobo” became “Bobo Good.” Yet, it’s not just rearranging words, because she never says, “Girl good,” or “Girl Bobo,” or any other odd combination.

That same grey has also demonstrated that she understood the verb “go” was a separate word, and ostensibly where it belonged in the sentence.

She says to us, “Bobo go walk” or “Bobo walk.”

(She uses this as a statement while she walks on the floor or as a request when she wants to go somewhere.)

The most overt is that she decided a proper sentence would be, “Bobo go kiss.” (She then kisses us.)

We would never use “go” in that way—she assuredly would never have heard us speak that phrase. And, she doesn’t randomly add “go” or any other words to sentences. Plus, she has never shuffled the other words (i.e. she never said “Go walk Bobo,” or “Kiss Bobo go,” or any other weird verb placement). She decided hers were the right phrases.

The key is that while “Bobo go kiss” isn’t a proper English sentence structure, it does make perfect sense based on what the bird knew of the syntax of other English sentences where “go” is used. Again, this is common with talking parrots.

Virginia Bush, who has an Avian Cognition forum, has similarly noted how her African grey’s use of language includes creative adjustments based on his interpretation of the meaning or syntax:

One summer day a couple years ago, I had one problem after another…I ended up saying “Oh good grief!” time after time after time, as I dealt with these ongoing difficulties. Well, Chaucer was watching and listening to all this, and a couple days later I heard him say “Oh… grief!” — in exactly my tone of voice, except he left out “good.” He said this a good many times, always leaving out “good.” And then I heard him say, many times, first “Oh bad grief!” — and then “Oh awful grief!” Chaucer corrected my nonsensical expression of exasperation and disgust so that it made sense. Chaucer now uses “Oh awful grief” himself in annoying situations.

Virginia Bush is also an English-as-Second-Language (ESL) instructor. She confirms that parrots make errors that would seem logical for someone unfamiliar with English—especially the odd anomalies in conjugation:

…while apparently talking about flying on our screened-in porch the day before. He very distinctly said ‘flied’ instead of ‘flew’,” “You flied on the porch”–referring to himself… (he doesn’t understand pronouns)

While not clinically tested, those examples should provide adequate evidence that some parrots possess the capability to comprehend and apply language syntax on some level.

WORD USE AND NICKNAMES

Lots of animals respond to nicknames. The only thing unique about parrots is that by having speech, they can give themselves nicknames. And they do!

It is common for parrots to use truncated versions of their own names, portmanteaus of their names with other words, or even to use completely different words as nicknames for themselves. My own grey has, at times, shortened her name from “Bobo” (two syllables) to “Bobe/Bub” or “Bo” (one syllable).

VOICE INFLECTION

I am presenting proof that Congo African grey parrots (probably other parrots too) are sensitive to something as subtle as voice inflection. It’s very possible other species are too, but we have specific evidence of it with an adult female grey parrot. It is very rare for this parrot to speak out of context, but when she is nervous or particularly excited, she will blurt out phrases. It’s similar to the way dogs get excited over an anticipated activity; it mostly happens when she is excited to get a food treat.

Normally, we will ask a question such as, “Are you a good girl?” She will then answer in-context with, “Yes,” or with something like, “Bobo good girl.” But, when she gets into that excited state, she will answer “yes” to any question we ask her—even a question we’re sure she doesn’t understand because it’s composed of words she’s never heard before. Note that when asked a question under those circumstances, she doesn’t answer, “Good” or “I love you” or “bye-bye”—just, “Yes.” You can see an example of this at the reference video here. “Talking Parrot Experiment—FlyChomperFly Research Series: VOICE INFLECTION Understood!”

SUMMARY

There are also crucial observations, which may not happen in a clinical setting, but will contribute new perspectives and awareness. There are situations where a behavior has never been witnessed and is unknown, or when the evidence of one lone behavior can contradict, validate, or enhance current wisdom. Those are when just a video can be as valuable as a research study. It’s why I’ve worked so hard to document my observations on video.

As you can see, observations such as these are vital for understanding our companion birds. Observe and document your birds—it’s more than just for memories.

CB Buckley is committed to improving parrot-human companionship. She encourages out-of-cage activity and in-home flight. She has been documenting parrot behavior for the research community while dispelling common misinformation. Her focus is to use the intelligence of the bird in all interactions. She documents her approach on her YouTube channel FlyChomperFly.

The Thinking Parrot — Part 1

Observations of Parrot Communication

by CB Buckley

The subject of vocal mimicry and animal communication is still in an early-research stage. In the past couple of decades, there have been some major shifts in the field, along with several very recent significant discoveries regarding birds in particular. Avian communication has been an uphill battle for some researchers, especially Irene Pepperberg of The Alex Foundation, who put in a lot of hard work on long-term projects. These researchers were bucking existing dogma (based on scientific “facts”) that birds couldn’t possibly have any real intelligence.

Now, there are new findings on a regular basis, confirming what every parrot owner knows: Parrots are incredibly smart.

NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION

Scientists have been reluctant to accept and give meanings to animal body-language or behavior because there is usually disagreement over the interpretation. Speech is much more specific. A talking animal with adequate communication skills resolves much of the problem. That is the reason parrots have become an important ambassador for animal communication.

But again, language isn’t absolute. Speech is such a key to the human experience that we humans can be overly speech-centric. It’s bad enough trying to get two humans, using words, to not talk past each-other; how do we confirm an interpretation of a non-verbal form of communication?

Animals can be even more subtle in their communications than scientists had thought previously. If the animal doesn’t/cannot verbalize it, we can overlook the message they are transmitting. For instance, after millennia of co-existence with dogs, we have just lately become enlightened about canine body language. Tail-wagging dogs, who superficially seemed to all be acting similarly, are actually communicating quite different intents to their doggie contacts—just by wagging their tails to the right vs. wagging to the left.

Typically, our experience comes from us humans trying to communicate with our companion animals. Some of the most famous animals who have communicated with human scientists used non-verbal methods:

Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, chimpanzees, were two of the first to communicate using ASL (American Sign Language)

Koko, the gorilla, also uses sign language—reported to know about 1,000 signs and understand about 2,000 verbal words

Kanzi, the bonobo, uses symbols to communicate about 600 words

Ake, a bottle-nosed dolphin, understands gestures

Phoenix, a bottle-nosed dolphin, comprehends an “acoustic language”

PARROTS USING REFERENTIAL GESTURES

Among several more recent findings regarding non-verbal animal communication was evidence of referential gestures by ravens. A referential gesture (directing an observer’s attention to something—aka “pointing”) is considered a high-level activity and a key developmental phase linked to speech in humans. As of 2012, referential gesturing other than by humans has only been scientifically confirmed in great apes and those ravens.

A referential gesture can also be done by manipulating an object in order to draw an observer’s attention to it with a specific purpose in mind. I recorded several instances of the parrot equivalent to object gesturing that was described in the raven research study.

In a clear demonstration of this, an African grey parrot has attempted to express her wishes by presenting an object, then uses speech, and finally resorts to a blatant referential gesture in order to make her point (via beak). You can watch the video at flychomperfly. “Parrot Beak Makes a Point—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

In another case, an adult female African grey parrot is attempting to entice (cross-species) a timid Severe Macaw parrot to play with a toy ball. The apprehensive macaw understands that his participation is being solicited as he goes out of his way to avoid even eye contact with the other bird. You can watch the video here. “Macaw Doesn’t Want to Play—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

The most fascinating referential gestures I’ve seen my birds do, is when the conures go through a bunch of zany (subtle and not-so-subtle) theatrics to lure one another with a tempting toy. Their mischievous gestures get the desired effect. Watch an example of this here. “Smart Parrots Playing ‘Keep-Away’!—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

Simple interactions that we engage in every day with our parrots are often a form of referential gesturing and cross-species communication. Probably the most familiar, not-so-subtle gesture would be the (in)famous parrot “no thank-you”—aka the “beak-push.”

Many people with companion parrots have experienced their birds coming over and putting their heads down for a head scritch.  That is a gesture and certainly qualifies as non-verbal communication (“A scritch, please—right here”). I have recorded a Jenday who tries so hard to get a Nanday to preen her. Of course, the Nanday takes full advantage of the opportunity. Watch that interaction here. “Funny Parrots say “Preen Here”—FlyChomperFly Research Series: REFERENTIAL GESTURE”

BIRDIE CHARADES

I have witnessed parrots spontaneously using symbolic gesturing and play-acting to communicate to other parrots or humans. I call it “birdie charades.” It’s a bit like modeling and observational learning, but used specifically as a means of communication.

In an example, one of our conures will flap her wings when she wants her buddy to fly over and join her. It’s definitely not random flapping—in fact, it’s really awkward as she signals the other bird when she’s inside my shirt.

A highly advanced example I observed was when a Jenday tried to coax a Sun conure into a sleeping tent by jumping in-and-out of it and then squawking at the other bird. She did this three times. That seemed quite clear to us humans. When the other conure was still wary of entering, the Jenday grabbed him by the beak and pulled him in. At that point, it was blatantly clear the gestures were absolutely intentional. There are many highly compelling anecdotal accounts of chickens, dogs and other animals using symbolic gestures.

ALTRUISTIC VOCALIZATIONS IN PARROTS

Although parrots are indeed tricksters, I have witnessed that they also use vocalizations for cooperation and altruism. Chimpanzees are known to alert one-another when they have found a good food source, and I have documented how all my birds (cross-species) use a common call to announce a “goodie” to the rest of the flock. Plus, my parrots are not only different species; they are a mix of both “Old World” (African) and “New World” (South American) parrots. Despite that, they will share the good news with one-another when they encounter something they consider to be excellent—it can be some special food, a cool toy, or a nice bath. You can watch an example of this here. “Parrots Sharing—FlyChomperFly Research Series: CROSS SPECIES VOCALS Altrusitic”

GESTURES AND SOUND FOR DECEIT

Parrots not only use vocalizations and referential gestures to communicate. We’ve seen them take it to the next level: deception. Lots of animals will use vocalizations, body language, and other means of tactical deception. However, referential gestures as deception are more rare.

I’m sure many of you have probably (unfortunately) experienced how a bird will put his head down to “ask” for the scritch…you reach out, and…Gotcha! A bite instead. We know that parrots will indeed use a gesture as a decoy—an intentionally fake gesture. With my flock, deception is usually used in play. Here are some bluffs that my birds have done frequently:

  • Referential gestures:  present an object as a lure and then snatch it away just as the other bird tries to grab for it (as shown in the video above)
  • Vocalizations:  use calls as a decoy to try to fake out another bird into thinking there is something interesting, when nothing is there; watch an example here. “Parrots Tell Lies!—FlyChomperFly Research Series: GESTURES AND SOUND FOR DECEIT”

MY FINDINGS IN PARROT COMMUNICATION AND VOCALIZATIONS

Why do birds mimic? Specific motivations for mimicking by parrots in particular have been an enigma for researchers. Research published by Mukta Chakraborty et al., has now revealed that the brains of those birds that are the best mimics (i.e. parrots) also have specialized brain development. They found it goes back to a common ancestor of both parrots and the kea, 29 million years ago.

We don’t know yet the mechanics of the evolution, but scientists have shown that parrots recognize each other by unique calls (“vocal labeling”). According to Thorsten Balsby et al. it may have been to allow members of complex dynamic flocks to identify specific individuals, and communicate directly with one-another.

Since 1972, it has been observed that in the wild, Amazons and other birds will sing long duets in what are called “antiphonal duets” or songs. Listen to an example of the wild Amazon song duet here. Michael D. Schindlinger, Harvard University

Curiously, my flock also sings those “duets.”

Motivation for the songs eluded researchers, who have proposed theories related to mating, alerting, specific messages, territorial aggression, settling down, conflicts or cooperation between pairs, etc. Having witnessed my birds creating their own song, I was fortunate to gain an insight into the song structure.

My birds would experiment with sounds and series of sounds—could be parts of contact calls, trills, whistles, environmental sounds, etc. When one of them found a phrase they liked, it went to the top of their “hit music chart”—they sang it over and over. As they came up with additional “fave” sounds, they built those into their original song. Multiple birds contributed to it; the song was a group effort…and evolved over time as they embellished it. Even having built it up together, each bird will sing their own rendition of it—adding or subtracting parts in an ad-lib fashion.

Here is how my flock’s song evolved:

  • First, a male Sun and a female Jendaya conure made up their own song, each adding to it their own “stanzas.”
  • They then taught the song to a female Nanday and a female African grey, who added their own “stanzas.”
  • The Nanday and grey then taught the song to my current female Jenday, who never met the original authors.
  • I recorded the Nanday singing solo, followed by the grey singing solo…and then the Nanday and grey singing it as a cross-species duet. The grey is off-camera in another room for the duet. You can watch here. “Amazing Cross-Species Parrot Song—FlyChomperFly Research Series: ANTIPHONAL DUET”

The birds shown in the videos are all females, so the individual renditions are not based on gender or sexual pair-bonds. No actions were ever instigated by the song except for joining in on the song.  It is clearly a social activity, and the energy of the song changes according to their motivation. I suspect the Amazon pairs in the wild would draw from existing songs, which they would customize to make their own.

My flock sings it within sight of one another and as a solo, so in addition to it being a contact-call song, they sing it for relaxation (like we hum a song), or just for fun. Based on these observations, parrots apparently engage in social activities that are not directly related to survival.

REPORTING UNIQUE CALL-AND-RESPONSE VOCALIZATIONS

Humans with flighted parrots will also participate in flock contact-calling. It is a natural social interaction that is especially valuable to those who freefly their parrots outside. Being grounded, a human’s primary means of contact with their flying birds is vocal calls, and parrots willingly integrate their humans into their contact call routine.

While many contact calls are taught from human-to-parrot, some of the parrots have initiated the role of teaching the human their own call. My first Jenday did that with me.

People with non-flighted birds may also have experienced a form of contact call. Many parrots will say or make sounds that they “expect” us to learn and understand. They may invent a unique call that indicates they are hungry, want to be moved or want to go to sleep. Our grey made up her own whistle sound to tell us she was ready to have the lights turned off. This vocalization differs in a very special way from the parrot duet—in that the parrot is soliciting and expecting not just a vocal response, but an actionable response from the recipient of their sounds. If you ever joked about feeling like you’re being trained by your bird, then this kind of interaction is a valid example that could scientifically qualify as your parrot intentionally training you.

A SONG GAME

While the parrot antiphonal duet is more like a pop song for my flock, it also (as described) functions as a form of contact call when they join in from remote locations. And now, my parrots have transformed part of their song into a contact call “game.”

I am presenting an extraordinary development regarding the antiphonal song. Embedded in my flock’s song are some groupings of sounds we might consider “choruses.” One short chorus in particular has evolved into a popular riff for them that is the birdie equivalent of the human Shave-and-a-Haircut-2Bits. (For those of you who do not remember that bit, it’s where one person or instrument starts a musical phrase, and then another person or instrument “answers” with the ending.) Here is an example of a bird participating in the human version. (Hahn’s Macaw (Maya) singing “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits”)

My flock has taken a chorus from their antiphonal song and invented their own unique birdie couplet. They have turned it into a cross-species vocalization game, where one of them randomly starts, then the others jump in to answer. I have recorded the elements of the game:

  • First, several instances of the chorus as it originally appeared embedded within their antiphonal song—we hear both parts (start and finish) from the same bird—so it can be easily recognized as a stand-alone.
  • Then, the parrots singing it as a call-and-response vocal game.  Note how part of the game at times is to see how quickly they can recognize and answer when one of them starts it.

As an experiment, I tried to join the game—even though my “squawking” was done with a “human accent.” I was amazed to find how readily they accepted anyone joining in. You can observe the game for yourself here. “Parrot Singing Game—FlyChomperFly Research Series: CALL RESPONSE (Shave-and-a-Haircut mode)”

What species survival benefits have humans gained from challenging ourselves to produce art or music? Why would highly intelligent parrots be different? Such mental stimulation from social activities may benefit the brain and should not be discounted when evaluating motivations for parrot behavior. In other words, what a parrot does isn’t always based on strict instincts, the environment or his primary survival needs.

Many people claim their parrots do things “just for fun.” It surely seems they do. We’ll explore this further in the second part of this article.

CB Buckley is committed to improving parrot-human companionship. She encourages out-of-cage activity and in-home flight. She has been documenting parrot behavior for the research community while dispelling common misconceptions. Her focus is to use the intelligence of the bird in all interactions. She demonstrates her approach on her YouTube channel, FlyChomperFly.

The Screamy Birdy Blues

or…this too shall pass.

By Kelsey Day

Although it’s technically still winter in North America, our companion parrots are entering “that time of year” when their hormones rage. The sun conure (Aratinga solstitialis) in my home enters a frenzy right around the middle of January. His problem is that he’s looking for nesting material. Every toy gets examined for its shreddability. Toys I wouldn’t think could be shredded end up as nesting material. It’s pretty impressive.

He also begins to sing the song of his people. Loudly. Frequently. Insistently.

I’ve never offered him a sun conure female to woo, so I’m not sure if a partner would settle his nerves or not. There are different schools of thought on that in avian circles, and mentioning one without mentioning another would be unfortunate, so I’ll refrain from trying to mention any. What I want to say is this: the hormonal season will pass.

Owners take their dogs and cats to veterinarians to be spayed and neutered not only because they wish to prevent unwanted litters of puppies and kittens, but also because they wish to curb the unwanted hormonal behaviors of the animals. No one finds it appealing to have a male pet dog get amorous with the leg of a friend who’s visiting for the evening. Few families want male cats spraying their walls, bedspreads, couch cushions and curtains. Rather than punishing the pet each time he or she displays hormonal behavior, the owner has the pet clinically altered.

When the pet reaches sexual maturity, the hormones don’t “kick in” and send the poor creature into fits of frustration when the owner refuses it release.

You’ll notice that we don’t clinically alter our pet birds. At some point in the bird’s life, he or she reaches sexual maturity.  The bird will naturally get squawky and nippy; she will naturally seek out dark places where eggs can be safely sat upon. The human-animal bond could suffer at this stage, depending on the owner’s readiness for periods of squawkiness, biting, and masturbating on toys and/or shoulders. In other words, the owner has to understand that the bird hasn’t been clinically/surgically altered to reduce hormones. If the owner punishes the bird each time he or she acts upon the hormonal impulses in his or her body, the owner is adding to the frustration.

That’s not fair.

As difficult as if may be to do, the humans in the human-animal bond have to wait it out. My sun conure goes through this hormonal period for about four weeks. Some years the extra squawkiness goes on for five or six weeks.

I do all the things the behaviorists tell us to do: I limit fresh foods and eliminate the sugary fruits during this time. I monitor the sunlamp time so he’s getting an even 12 hours of day, 12 hours of night. But I let him have his shreddable toys for destroying. I let him squawk when he feels the need to squawk. If he’s “enjoying” one of his toys, I don’t lose my mind and remove the toy. He gets his annual well-bird checkup to make sure his blood cell count is right on target and there’s nothing to worry about, and we wait it out.

He’s just being a bird with the screamy birdy blues. And this too shall pass.

Kelsey Day is an avian hobbyist and author in the Southeast. Her love of parrots keeps her investigating ways to improve their experiences in human care, and ways to incorporate them in works of fiction.