(The “learning experience” never ends. And it’s quite interesting to see what you have learned when you look back at yourself! This was an article I wrote with the future in mind almost four years ago. At the time I wrote this piece, I knew a fraction of what I know now. But my approach and point of view still makes sense.)
PERHAPS IT’S LUCK…PERHAPS NOT
By Patricia Sund
I’d seen it all. I’d read everything I could get my hands on, surfed the web, bought the books, (and actually read them), talked to bird people, and went to bird shows. I subscribed to the magazines, read the articles and compared ingredient listings on the backs of packages. I attempted to sort out the information and separate the sound, sensible plans from the ideas that even I could see were a total load of crap. I had reached the end of the Internet. All in all, I’d spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours, studying from every source I could locate; the urgent subject at hand: my African Grey, Parker. I was as serious as a heart attack about getting the information and raising him the best way I could.
Now there was only one thing stopping me from being a well-seasoned bird owner: Experience.
I only have just over a year in experiencing what it is like to live with my own parrot. And every morning I think to myself, “I wonder what Parker and I are going to learn today.”
He’s still young, only 16 months in July and he’s just beginning to crack the communication code of language. He changes and stretches his abilities every day. I socialized Parker very heavily when he was young. (I read that this was a good thing to do if you wanted a happy, well-balanced bird.)My friend Clive, who has about a gazillion years of experience as an owner, breeder and retail bird supply store owner told me that because of Parker’s early socialization, he was most likely going to be a late talker. But, on the other hand, I ended up with a riotously cheerful little guy who is just as happy on the beach meeting tourists or going to his job, as he is in his own home.
I started hauling him around with me just as soon as I got him. (I read that this kept your parrot from becoming too dependent on a routine.) He went to restaurants with me, on weekend visits to friends, even to the local pub where they have an outside courtyard. (I learned sunshine is important for your bird’s health.) He quickly got used to traveling in his carry-cage in the car and he sings and whistles in there like it was the Queen Mary and he was a back-up singer for Tina Turner.
I really haven’t had any problem with him at all, but by God, I was ready. I just assumed I would have some issues because after all, I was inexperienced and I had read so many heartbreaking stories.My eyes teared up through books about behavior problems, and I sobbed at stories of abandoned and abused birds. I mentally prepared myself for issues such as plucking or screaming to appear. I trained myself to watch for phobic problems, picky eating, and stress. (I read that this sometimes develops.) Nothing. He got a little beaky for a while, but we nipped that in the bud with a “no bite” and “evil-eye.” combo-platter. He is honest-to-God, one of the happiest damned birds even Clive has ever seen and Clive has handled thousands of birds.
I know the drill: His cage is clean and his toys are rotated from a large stock.He gets quite a bit of sunshine, but he has full spectrum lighting in his cage. His step-ups are terrific and I play with him, teach him tricks and talk to him. He gets 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night, and he gets showers on regular basis, which he relishes. (I read that these are both very important for their well-being.) He is paper-trained. The little guy even has a job.
His diet is impeccable, he’s far from picky and he eats like a pig. He loves the dark green and orange vegetables that he gets every day. (I read that these are a must.) The variety of food he eats is stunning, and he went through a heavy molt with no lasting issues. He doesn’t even like sunflower seeds. (I read these are not good for your bird)
Parky is happy to be with me, but he has a huge flock of friends that he loves spending time with. (I learned that having a flock is crucial) He easily goes to strangers if I introduce them to him. He gets visitors, and invitations to parties. He even got a few Christmas cards.
I was ready for problems and issues. I was prepared for plucking and screaming. I knew what to do and how to handle it. But nothing bad ever happened. I have had no real problems to speak of.
My question is this: Which comes first, the bird or the upbringing? Are some birds just naturally prone to behavioral problems due to their DNA? Every bird is different. Was it just luck that Parker so far, has had no major issues? Is it what I do or is it who he is? Is the way I’m raising him so heavily impacting how he handles the world that even if he were prone to problems, it would be of no consequence? Or is it because he wasn’t prone to any behavioral problems in the first place?
My friend Clive believes in good breeding. He believes that if the parents of the bird are sweet, happy, stable birds, you are more likely to end up with a bird of the same constitution. He thinks Parker came from good stock, and is who he is because of his heredity. I’m not so sure. I’ve never met Parker’s parents so I can’t answer that question but I know what he is referring to. Clive had 3 Timnehs from the same clutch that were being sold in the store he managed. I met these parrots and they were skittish, and intractable. These were very young birds and Clive was finishing their weaning for the breeder, so they got the same attention and upbringing the other babies in the store received but these three just weren’t going along with the program. I didn’t think it was possible that a “mean” bappie existed, but here they were.
I asked Clive about it and he said, “Those three were trying to bite when they were still in the incubator.”
This was not Clive’s first encounter of this sort, so he doesn’t consider it a fluke.
That is what began our discussion on this subject, and it has gone on for months. Clive and I go back in forth with the classic “environment vs. heredity” argument; a new twist on the movie “Trading Places”.
Is Parker a happy, polite and so far, problem free parrot because he hatched that way? Or rather, was it my “bordering on the obsessive” search for information regarding raising problem parrots and then actually putting into practice the information I found?
I am by no means particularly different than many other bird companions. However, I got into birds late into the game, and have no real time at the helm of this particular ship. I saw this as a detriment and wanting to catch up, I concentrated on doing everything I could to make up for the lack of experience, which involved educating myself. I felt I owed it to Parker to give him what I saw as more than a fighting chance to become the best and happiest bird he could be. So I kept plugging away at finding all the answers to all the questions.
I found out one thing that is an absolute: Absolutes just don’t exist. The more I learn, the more questions I find myself asking.
Remember Dr. Spock? His childcare book sold like hotcakes years ago and at the time, he was considered to be the ultimate authority in the field of baby and childcare. Since then, a lot of what were considered to be the standard benchmarks in childcare are now routinely questioned. His guide is a tad short in the warmth department and tends to answer the questions in a factual cut-and-dried manner rather than the warm and fuzzy style most parents tend to prefer these days.There are many individuals whose books, videos and articles about bird care I have devoured like, well…hotcakes. And we all know them: Friedman, Heidenreich, O’Connor, Shewokis, Pepperberg, et al. Lots of wonderful people with tons of time and experience in the bank are righting the wrongs and slaying the dragons of myth and misinformation. These are the people who are establishing the foundation for a field that has yet to crawl out of its infancy. Their ideas will be considered the groundbreaking work that others in the future will base new research on. They are the experts that are changing the way people are raising, feeding, and caring for their birds, yet they are never short on warmth or compassion.
One thing became clear to me while reading their work: Raising a companion bird is not so much a science, or a pastime as it is an art. It is a creative work always in progress and it changes every minute. There are two participants in this work of art, the human and the bird, and sometimes the collaborators don’t always agree. But this is where it becomes a work of art. Both participants must come up with a viable solution or one of them loses out in the experience. The experience is the art, as well as the outcome, and both of the participants change as time passes. It is a fluid, moving entity.
There are still so many things I don’t know and I simply don’t have the past history to possess a gut instinct about the subject yet. But this particular “environment versus heredity” thing has me bugged.
In the meantime, while I puzzle over this question, Parker climbs about on his “environmentally enriched” play stand and plays with his toys just as I taught him. He practices his vocalizations in between snacking on his bird healthy vegetables, and fresh clean water while attempting to engage me in a game of “tickle foot”, or invite me to watch him while he does his tricks. He happily hangs upside down beating on a toy, and goes about the business that he knows best: being a parrot. He is this way every single day: joyously happy, active, chatty and curious. He’s really not even that moody for God’s sake!How did this happen?Will Parker remain this way?
I am a lucky, lucky bird companion and I’m very well aware of this, but was it luck? Was it heredity? Was it my compulsive pursuit of attempting to do everything correctly that led Parker to become such a flexible, easygoing parrot? I’ve read so many stories of people who seemed to be perfectly wonderful bird parents and ended up with a maniacal, phobic bird even when they were very young. Maybe I’m just feeling guilty because it really wasn’t that difficult to raise Parker in a sensible yet nurturing environment. It obviously paid off. Or did it? Would another African Grey have responded the same way? Could I do it again with a different bird? Could someone else do what I did and end up with the same result? Can you see my brain melting as a result of this question?
After all, the reason I did all that research was because I was aware that I didn’t know nearly enough. I felt completely inadequate to raise Parker the way I knew he needed to be raised.But I found the tools. All that information has served me well in the long run. Perhaps I shouldn’t obsess over this mind twisting question for too long because while it serves its purpose, it takes away from the real point of what this is all about: maintaining and nurturing a happy positive relationship with my parrot. I suppose I shouldn’t question how Parker and I ended up this way.Maybe I should just consider myself lucky.
Patricia Sund is a Free-Lance Writer residing in Florida with her three African Greys. She has been published in About.com, Bird Talk Magazine, Birds USA, In Your Flock Magazine, Good Bird Magazine as well as numerous websites and newsletters. She is currently doing research for a book titled "Parrot Nation".