This is part 2 of a multi-part series. Part 1 is here. This post is significantly more personal observation based than the previous one.
If you own parrots, I have a challenge for you. I want you to try to find me an image of your parrot’s species in the wild. And then, I want you to find me an image of your parrot’s species in the wild alone (zoomed out, please, no cheating for super up close focus :)).
I’m guessing the latter is going to be nearly impossible for most of the commonly kept species in captivity. I’m also guessing that if you do find a picture of a parrot alone in the wild, that parrot is in a nest.
In the wild, almost every species of parrot lives in either small family groups (parents, children, sometimes young adult children that have not yet mated on their own) or in large flocks.
The most commonly kept parrots in captivity are budgies/parakeets, cockatiels, and lovebirds. And they are all huge flocking birds. Check out this amazing video of budgies in the wild narrated by David Tennant.
I won’t get into nature vs nurture, ‘nature’ as a concept, evolution or anything else here. I will just say that for myself, I cannot find a reasonable argument against parrots generally choosing to spend time with their own species given the option.
And yet, in our homes, most parrots live alone. Most parrots are raised alone, and many can live out their lives without seeing a single other parrot.
I, like many others who got parrots in the past 20 years, was told that a parrot could not bond to people and to other parrots, and that you needed to keep them separated so that they would remain pets. And yet, my second and third parrots were a pair of green cheek conures that I purchased potentially to breed. They never did, for a number of reasons, but I got to watch a pair of parrots interact with the world.
I also traveled to Natural Encounters to take the week long parrot training class with Steve Martin which I highly, highly recommend if you can even barely manage. One of the most eye opening things there was that almost without exception, every parrot there lived in pairs or groups, and every single one of them still wanted to play fun training games with polite humans. It completely shook the foundations of what I had been told.
In conversations with the trainers, many of them repeated the same thing — they had concerns about parrots kept in captivity, and wished that people would buy two baby parrots together, rather than one.
In the past five years, my postage stamp parrot flock (one of this, one of that, one of this other) has shifted into pairs. The introductions are not simple (and I’ll go into that in the next post, as introductions and environment make a HUGE difference in success), but the benefits have been astonishing.
This is Theo.
Theo is a 25 year old (nearly 26!) blue and gold macaw. We are his second home, and adopted him in 2004 from a parrot rescue in California. Previous to living with us, he lived with a cockatoo. During the time we’ve had him, he’s lived in a 4′ by 3′ macaw cage, shared the 8′ by 4′ macaw cage with our sadly passed away scarlet macaw, and currently shares the same cage with our greenwing macaw, Tlalli.
Tlalli and Theo moved into the big cage together just shy of a year ago. Tlalli is an extremely social greenwing macaw, who LOVES people, LOVES to talk to people, and LOVES to convince people to play fun games with her. Since they moved in together, Theo has become vastly more social, is learning how to talk for the first time in his life, and has become significantly more willing to explore the world.
Theo has a peculiar behaviour that shows when he’s stressed — he weaves his head in a very stereotypical way in a pattern that almost looks like he’s dancing. It’s the clearest sign that he’s been pushed past his limits for what he can deal with.
In May of this year, we took Theo and Tlalli to a long term care home to talk with the residents, and then took both of them to Dairy Queen afterwards. Theo didn’t weave his head once. He mumbled, he hung out, he tried desperately to steal my ice cream… but no signs of stress.
Don’t worry about the lack of harness in the previous picture — Theo has a frozen wing joint and cannot fully extend one wing, so he’s utterly grounded and incapable of flight. In fact, for years, he barely moved around in his cage, and had serious balance issues.
He has begun moving more, has begun flapping his wings after seeing Tlalli do so a thousand times, and has started climbing up onto the play stands that are nearly 8 feet off the ground. His grip is better. His balance is better. His torso is visibly differently shaped because he’s actually building muscle.
All because of this rumpled creature.
And it goes both ways. Tlalli is vastly more entertained during the day because she has Theo to interact with. Theo has taught her how to play with toys, how to destroy wood, and both of them keep each other on their toes.
This is the biggest success story that I have, mostly because of where these two started. But there are more stories to tell too!
Anisette is a 12 year old green cheek conure, who lived for years with her mate, Stilton, until Stilton died in 2008. She was almost desperate for interaction with people after he died, and very friendly… but she didn’t seem happy.
Enter Artichoke, a two year old black capped conure.
They moved in together about six months after Artichoke came home as a baby, and both of them seem so content. They come rushing over to say hello when people are around, and ask for head scratches while Ani mumbles in her conure way. They preen each other, play with toys together, and are always near each other.
And the final success story (for now!):
We brought home Cinereo, our grey parrot, as a baby in late 2003. He’s lived in our house for nearly 12 years, and just turned 12 years old. He’s social and interactive, but has never been particularly energetic, despite being flighted and having a large and enriched cage.
He talked, as greys do, in spurts and babbles, and was happy to interact with people on his own terms.
In February of 2014, we brought home this lovely lady.
Keela is a Timneh grey, approximately seven years old, and exceptionally social. She particularly loves me, likes to stare at the internet, is an amazing flyer, extremely energetic and very, very bossy. She also knows a number of mechanical and electronic noises that she likes to share with everyone.
Even living separately, Cin became significantly more talkative, and immediately picked up on most of the things that Keela says. Cin has never lived alone, he’s always lived with other parrots, and always other talking parrots, but he’s never picked up any of their phrases until he met another grey.
In March of 2015, we moved them in together into a large double macaw cage. Since that time, Cin has lost weight, both of them are extremely active, and both are still friendly and happy to interact with us. Every time I look at them in their cage, they’re near each other, frequently clacking in disapproval at each other, and/or playing what appears to be a game where one knocks the other off the perch. Both come out of their giant cage. Keela does a lot more exploring out of her cage, and Cin still tends to stay more in one place, but he talks up a storm, vastly more than he used to.
Keep in mind, all of these introductions took months, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will work out this way. However, I feel (and have seen from Cin’s talking) that even out of cage time together and having a similar species in the household can make a difference in the lives of parrots in captivity.
The next two posts on this will be about what research says to back me up and introductions and setting yourself up to succeed with an appropriate environment.