WE CAN TAKE THE PARROT OUT OF THE JUNGLE BUT CAN WE TAKE THE JUNGLE OUT OF THE PARROT?
by Sally Blanchard
In the Nature Vs. Nurture Column I wrote in the Original Bird Talk Magazine. I have written about how important it is to understand how so much of the natural and wild behaviors of parrots profoundly affects the behaviors of our companion parrots. Whether we are dealing with wild parrots, older wild-caught parrots, or domestically raised hand-fed babies, each parrot presents a unique combination of instinctive and learned behaviors. Our companion parrots come with a full complement of instinctive behaviors and these behaviors often don’t work for them as part of our lives. This is why it is so important to understand why it is natural for a companion parrot to behave in a way that seems totally illogical to us but is completely logical when we analyze it from the perspective of their natural behaviors.
When I first became fascinated with parrots over 35 years ago, there was very little information about them in the wild. It almost seemed as if there was some purposeful avoidance of the scientific study of them, while many other families of birds had been studied extensively by research ornithologists. While there are quite a few books about parrots from the 1830s on, they barely touched on the habits of wild parrots and were mostly written with captive birds in mind. Even some of the early literature about our now extinct Carolina Paroquet dealt with their pet potential rather than their wild behavior. They were not considered to be good talkers at all so they weren't that popular as a pet. Now there are quite a few research biologists and ornithologists studying wild parrots. Each and every bit of information that we learn from their studies will help us unlock some of the puzzles about our companion parrots, their needs, and why they do the things that they do in our living rooms. Several years ago, Dr. Charles Munn, who has done extensive parrot research and conservation work in South America stopped by my booth at a parrot conference several years ago. My caique, Spikey Le Bec, was very busy ‘hair surfing’ on the top of a friend’s head. Dr. Munn expressed curiosity about the behavior, which I believe is similar to leaf bathing behavior in the wild. He asked me quite a few questions because he was in the process of setting up a blind in Brazil to study a flock of caiques. He said he would watch for some of the behaviors I described. It was fascinating for me to think that curiosity of a companion parrot’s behavior could actually help a scientist to better understand the behavior of his wild counterparts. I guess it can work both ways.
There is no doubt that if we have a better understanding of the social and survival behaviors of wild parrots, the more we will understand what makes our parrots ‘tick’.
For many years, people presumed aspects about parrots based on misconceptions about their lives in the wild. I have a collection of several books from the 1800s and early 1900s where various ‘aviarists’ as they were called back then, tried to capture the essence of parrots for their readers. Much of the information is based on only a few observations of parrots in the wild. One of the most horrific examples of misinformation was the belief among many that parrots didn't need to drink water. This belief seemed to be most prevalent in regards to African greys. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would believe this but the only thing I can come up with is that no one had ever seen wild greys drinking water. Both Dr. W.T Greene, the author of Parrots in Captivity (3 volumes 1884 to 1887) and Dr. Karl Russ, the author of The Speaking Parrots (1884) pleaded with readers to give their parrots drinking water. As late as the 1980s a book by a respected author stated that greys only ate palm nuts. However, we now know that they not only drink water but feed on the calcium rich grasses that grow in shallow pond-puddles in the rain forest where they live. Their diet is certainly more varied than palm nuts.
There are many interesting examples of wild behavior influencing companion parrot behavior. While I am sure that there are others, I can immediately think of two common companion parrot species that are not only very territorial but also are very defensive about their food. I can always tell when Spikey really likes something I feed him. He hovers over it with his body and if I even come within a few feet of his food dish, he makes this guttural high-pitched squealing sound as a warning. While he has never bitten me since he knows that I am the food lady, I still know that I’d better not try to separate him and his pistachio nut! Quaker parakeets are also very protective of their territory and food, sometimes to the point that they can forget who their favorite people are when they have a favorite food morsel. In thinking this, one aspect immediately comes to my mind; both species live in large flocks in the wild. It is logical that even though they are part of a larger group, there has to be some competition for food as the flock forages. When another bird gets too close to their gleaned morsel, the bird no doubt lets the interloper know in no uncertain terms that the food belongs to them! I imagine that the more birds that are packed into one area, the more important it becomes for each bird to define its “get out of my face space.”
I am excited to know that there are currently quite a few scientific studies of wild parrots. With just about every bit of information that I learn, I can reflect on how that will help me to help people understand their parrots better.