The Bird Whisperer

                                    The Bird Whisperer     © Don Burke.

How would you feel if you were kidnapped by aliens and taken to a planet far, far away? How would you feel if you were confined to a small cell on arrival where you were on exhibit, and there were none of your captors that could speak English or communicate with you in any way? What if you had no-one that you could talk to even though you cheerfully greeted every bizarre new face that you saw. What if they brutalised you with their insane behaviour, yet never tried to meet you half way with mutual greetings?

Well this is the life of many captive birds. This is what we often unknowingly do to them.

Birds have been getting a lot of scientific research interest in recent years. There are now many books on bird behaviour and it is clear that certain birds are right up there with chimpanzees, bonobos and dolphins in terms of intelligence. Members of the crow family, and parrots are very smart indeed. New Caledonian crows manufacture and use tools as do Great Palm Cockatoos.

Perhaps the most amazing work is Irene Pepperberg’s long term study with Alex, her African Grey parrot. Alex had an incredible mind, for instance he was shown to understand abstract concepts such as colour and shape. When asked “What’s same?” with a collection of red plastic objects that were triangular, square and circles, Alex answered “Colour”. When asked “What’s same?” with many plastic triangles in red, blue, yellow, etc, Alex answered “Shape”.

While there have been many ethological studies of bird behaviour, often the basic day to day behaviour such as politely asking for friendship are not well enough covered: the basic rules of engagement including who dominates/leads who, are not dealt-with with real insight. For instance, how to behave towards a pet parrot to achieve a mutually satisfactory relationship is a neglected field. Even Alex was more of a great student than a true friend. He could have taught us so much more about parrot language and communication.

Based on the Horse Whisperer methodology, I have made a small start on building more nuanced relationships with birds, particularly parrots. I have studied them to see what their social niceties and feedback mechanisms are.  I have no illusions, however: I have barely made a start. One thing that I know is that horses are vastly more alike in personality than parrots are. Parrots are more like us humans: they vary a lot in shyness, courage and aggressive behaviour.

The video on the link is an experiment with a really nasty, seemingly sociopathic Little Corella. Make no mistake, this is a very dangerous bird. Yet it responded in a wonderful way after 11 seconds of polite mutual greetings. The video was made for the general public and is not very detailed at all, so here is the more in-depth story.

Firstly, the bird and I were strangers to one another. Secondly, the bird trainer at the zoo mainly uses food treats (sunflower seeds) to attract and train a hungry bird. This is the standard methodology for getting free-flying birds to return to their trainer. I prefer to socially bond with a bird, avoiding food rewards wherever possible.

It always seems best to allow a problem bird to emerge from its cage prior to interacting with it. In their own cage, birds can often get stuck in a rut of nasty behaviour. As the bird emerges, it sees a new world and a new person to explore.

I was scoping the corella out for some time before I made a formal approach to it. It was obvious to me that the bird was reaching out to establish contact with a friend. The corella made chewing actions with its beak which are both a displacement activity (ie a comfort behaviour) and a humble body-language request to be your friend. The corella’s preening actions and body displays are very eloquent: they mean “I would just LOVE a cuddle and a scratch” from someone that I trust.Food rewards do not build real trust, but mutual preening does.

Was I scared as I approached this dangerous corella? Yes I was, but you must feign a matter of fact, gentle calmness to reach out to a bird like this one. As I got nearer, the bird sent more and more messages of welcome, so I kept on advancing. If it had stopped chewing its beak, I would have immediately taken a step back (advance and retreat), then I would have straight away gently approached again, as soon as it started chewing its beak. This way the bird would realise that I spoke fluent ‘Corella’ and that had good manners.

All birds are scared of snakes; anything long, thin and moving MUST be a SNAKE! So a lunging arm is a snake to nearly all birds (as are moving sticks). Yet so many people push their arms rapidly forward, pointing at birds. This terrifies birds and they pull their feathers down in terror… ready to make an escape from the attacking snake. But people fail to notice the terror and the tightly-held feathers. And thus they destroy any chance of making friends with the poor bird. Almost 100% of budgie people terrorise their own budgies in this ignorant manner.

Was Chloe permanently cured? Yes, if I had taken Chloe home to live with me or if I had trained its owner how to establish a friendship with it. It would, however, take many months of nuanced reinforcement before it was at peace with the world. It also needed a new, stimulating life which is fun and enriching; an aviary full of fresh gumtree branches to destroy, chicken or chop bones to chew to pieces, ball games (plastic practice golf balls with holes in them), nuts in their shells (peanuts, almonds, walnuts, etc), plus fresh corn on slices of cob, silverbeet; anything that is healthy.

One of the best untrained scientists that I have met was Ida Gallop. Her Corella named Jack was amazing. He could perform many tricks and talked about exactly what he was doing. But it is Ida’s understanding of Corella behaviour that surprised me. She instinctively understood that corellas, like most parrots, have a need for outlets for the aggressive side of their nature. Much as we warring humans, need sport to let off war-like steam. The Oracle of Delphi predicted that the sport events at the Delphic and Olympic games would herald the end of wars.

So Ida created vicious play games for Jack’s enjoyment. The major game was ‘Kill the Flyswat’ where Ida used the flyswat, or similar (eg a pan & broom), to ‘attack’ Jack and Jack would scream and shriek as he killed it. In the midst of his most aggressive attacks, if Ida’s finger or hand got in the way, he would pull back in time. He knew that it was only a game. If your parrot is getting nasty, perhaps try a fun game of aggression. Start off gently and stop if the bird is felling under attack. ALWAYS end on a positive note and a reward such as a food treat. Do not hit the bird ever. This is just play.

To see Jack and Ida, go to the Burke’s Backyard website and search Jack the Corella.   

The Sulfur Crested Cockatoo at the end of the video was a much more challenging bird to win over. He is in his cage where he could nip whoever he dislikes. He has the swagger of an Alpha Male which means that he would likely bite any timid people when the opportunity presents itself. And if he bites you, you can’t easily get your finger out of the way. Plus he is safe behind the wire mesh.

This why I worked on getting him curious as to find out what I was made of. Most cockatoos love to dance and there are YouTube videos where cockatoos dance to recorded music. This appears to be a fun bonding activity for wild cockatoos. Dancing with a cockatoo tends to get their curiosity going, as they love to play and learn new dance steps.

If you look at the sulfur crested cockatoo section of the video again, you will see him make a couple of quick grabs at the wire near my fingers. This is the bird trying me out to see if I will get scared and pull my hand away in fright. You must try not to be timid around dominant animals as this can lead to injury. At the end, he does the beak chewing action as I put my hand inside the aviary, so I was invited to preen him. Nonetheless, I have encountered parrots that invite you in and still attack you when you get close enough.

When we featured boxing World Champion Kostya Tszyu’s garden on Burkes Backyard, he had a male Eclectus parrot in a small aviary. I asked Kostya to hop in with his bird, but he said that he was scared of this parrot because he bites really hard. It amazed me that he could fight in the boxing ring where he could get beaten up or even be killed, but he was scared of a parrot. So I said that I would see what could be done. This parrot was very much an alpha male and it obviously had Kostya’s measure.

I entered the tiny aviary and it immediately approached me in an aggressive manner, beak open – but not with the chewing action. It lunged at me and bit me as hard as it could on my finger. It hurt like hell, but I ignored it and him – I left my hand on the perch as it had been. Both of us stood our ground. After a short while, curious, he sidled up to me for a scratch, which he got. From that moment on we were friends. When I entered his aviary, I expected to be bitten, but I couldn’t think of any alternative method to neutralise his dominant aggression.

There is a huge amount of work to be done to communicate better with parrots. Most show aggression by erecting their forehead feathers, but this can also a sexual display as well. All-over subtle (to us) feather fluffing can indicate aggression, and feathers pulled down sleekly against the body indicate fear.

Wherever possible, let the bird come to you as I did with the sulfur crested cockatoo. Birds are fragile creatures where small injuries are often fatal since they might be rendered unable to fly. Thus evolution has favoured birds that are very careful and protective of themselves. If you have a tame pet bird, let others, not yourself traumatise them where treatment is necessary. This applies to wing feather trimming, setting broken bones, or any other invasive procedures. Birds have long memories and many never forgive or forget.

Some parrots are naturally aggressive birds, such as Major Mitchell’s cockatoos. Some of this species even kill their mates when in a breeding pair. Other parrots bond tightly to one person and then attack anyone else who comes near (eg Rainbow lorikeets). Both a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo and a galah/corella hybrid that I owned were nasty to other members of our family, but cuddly toys with myself.

Parrots play REALLY HARD. Their beaks are sort of bullet-proof and feel no pain. So they can spar viciously without feeling any pain. And their scaly feet are as tough as old boots. They lack the inhibition of biting us humans. They don’t really understand soft skin. Parrots are generally inhibited from attacking feathers because they all need feathers to fly.

I am only just beginning to communicate with birds. Please forgive my simplistic attempts to work them out.