Avian Non-verbal communication

posted in: Miscellaneous, Parrots | 3

“I had a strange encounter at a shopping mall in Seoul this morning.

“I was walking to the pets section of the supermarket not unlike our pet lovers chain here in Singapore.

“I have a 4 month old cockatiel at home and we are all very close to it and I always have a look at birds section of all the pet shop I pass by.

“This enclosure had a sliding front glass pane access. Inside was a pair of cockatiels and Pied Kakariki [also known as Red-fronted Parakeet or Red-fronted Kakariki (Cyanoramphus novaezalendiae)].

[The above image shows a Red-fronted Parakeet courtesy of Dr Eric Tan, photographed at the Te Wharawhara Open Sanctuary, Rakiura National Park, Ulva Island, New Zealand on 30th October 2011. However, the bird seen in the shop is slightly different, a “pied mutation” that is popular in the pet trade.]

“One of the Kakarikis caught my attention. It was right at the front of the enclosure with one leg resting on the horizontal ledge and the other lodged on the side corner. It did not appear to be in distress, but it was a lot more interested in human visitors passing by the enclosure than all the rest.

“I went near to have a look at the bird as I was not familiar with this species.

“When I got close it started to do a side to side dance. The closer I got the more energetic its dance became.
I thought that this was quite an engaging individual, an attention seeking bird.

“Then I walked away. It did not move from the spot. And I observed it from far. I had a hunch from the body language that its upper leg was stuck between the glass pane and the side of the enclosure.

“Sure enough as I approached it, it did the dance again. When I pointed to the stuck leg, its dance took a slightly different form but still very energetic.

“It was not in pain or trying on its own to dislodge it. On close examination, it looked like it was in need of a pedicure.

“It’s very long fore claw was apparently stuck as I suspected.

“Now I tried to explain the situation to the shop assistant but had less luck. He spoke no English and although he saw what I was pointing to, he led me to the product shelves.

“Finally after much gesturing with my foot and pointing at birds foot and simulating groans of pain, he finally realised what I was thinking about.

“He slid aside the front glass panel and the bird was free. It hopped off for a quick sip of water and was back.

“What happened next also got me by surprise. The handler took it out of the enclosure and it looked as if it was more keen to leave his hand and get onto me. I did not even extend my hand to the bird. It just stood there waiting to be transferred over. The handler then put it back in the cage and it went back to its usual routine.

“We have always trained birds to do what we want them to do. In return for reward. What about the other way round… the bird trying to get us to perform a particular behaviour?

“This encounter has got me thinking a bit more about bird-human communication.”

Jeremy Lee
7th July 2015

3 Responses

  1. Lee Chiu San

    Aviculturalists have long suspected that parrots and parrotlike birds do train human beings. That is, by their action, they make us behave in ways that they want. Moluccan Cockatoos are well-known for being extremely affectionate, but I have grown suspicious of them for being excessively demanding. We once had a large male Moluccan who always demanded attention. He was reasonably quiet (though that is a relative term as far as cockatoos are concerned) as long as we were just minding our own business in the house. Of course, when he indicated that he wanted attention, we would usually go over and make a fuss over him.
    But, after a while, he took to screaming. A Moluccan’s scream is something else again.
    Then, we noticed a pattern. His screaming would start whenever the phone rang, and would continue as long as we were on the phone (this was in the days before handphones). Pretty soon, we worked out that he had figured that when the phone rang, we would not be at his beck and call. We would attend to the phone first. So, if he screamed loud and long enough, we would have to hang up and attend to him.
    Much as we loved that character, he became impossible to live with. If you go to Jurong Bird Park and see a large, male Moluccan who is noticeably more pink than the norm, and who is missing the first toe on his right foot, that was our demanding former pet.
    I know of many other stories of parrots that behaved in ways that modified the behaviour of their owners.

    • Jeremy Lee

      I have been reading too about parrots who self mutilate or demonstrate apologetic behaviour to try to pull at the heart strings of the owners in order to get attention.

      This behaviour might have been taught by the owner in disciplining the bird during its juvenile years. It might very well turn the tables around and use it on the owner too.

      My pet cockatiel has now learnt to demand behind the head scratches. He just comes and then lowers its head asking for a scratch.

      Do not underestimate bird brains (pun intended)

  2. Lee Chiu San

    Self-mutilation is all too common among many species of parrots. I have noticed that it tends to occur among those that were hand-raised by humans. I have personally experienced it with Cockatoos, African Greys, Eclectus and large Lories and have seen it in Macaws belonging to friends. It is a heartbreaking and almost incurable problem. It does not appear to be one of the behaviours that the parrots practice to make people pay attention to them. Rather, it seems to be something they do when they are left alone.

    Feather plucking was a major reason why I stopped keeping hand-raised babies of the large parrot species. In the end I decided that it was unfair to try to turn parrots into imitation human beings. They are too destructive, and require too much supervision, space and attention to fit into a human living environment. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that it is impossible to accommodate a large, tame parrot inside the average Singaporean house. In the end, my large lories lived in garden aviaries and the cockatoos went to the Bird Park and a friend’s farm.

    I have never had feather-plucking problems with wild-caught Lories, or wild Psittacula parakeets, nor with aviary-bred birds raised by their parents. And I have never come across it with the dozens of cockatiels that were born in my aviaries. If I were ever again to try to keep a very tame parrot, it would probably be a cockatiel.

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