Learning Psittacine

My youngest daughter has a facility for learning languages. She didn’t inherit it from me. I’ve tried Spanish, French and Japanese without success. It could be a lack of diligence on my part or a genuine deficiency in my equipment. Either way, I’m still unilingual, or was, until recently. Currently, I’m enjoying some success in learning a new language. I suppose the difference between previous attempts and this one is that, this time, I enjoy the services of a full time, live in, tutor.

Most mornings, I’m awakened by calls of “Hi John.” The tutor is using my native tongue to tell me that it is time to get up and about the business of the day.

At breakfast, though, he uses his native tongue to tell me that he would like to share whatever I’m eating. Since both of his parents were parrots, his native means of communication is body language. He assumes the pose used by nestlings to beg food from their parents to tell me that he is ready for another bite. He can say “feed the bird” but he chooses, in this instance, to force me to respond to his language.

If I walk into my home office without him, I will soon hear “Go to work with the dad?” Here, he uses my language to express his wants.

I introduce him to other people by having him sit on my hand while I say, “Brandy, this is so-and-so.” He will respond by turning around, walking up my arm and putting his beak against my chest. This is an invitation for me to scratch his head. In the wild, two parrots will declare to a third that they are “an item” by scratching each other on the back of the neck. Meeting a new person seems to require a declaration in his own language that “This guy belongs to me.”

If I walk into another part of the house, I will hear a whistle that I have learned to mean “Where are you?” If I walk out the door without telling him where I am going, I hear a screech that lets me know that my manners are lacking. It took me awhile to learn what these different whistles mean, but when I respond properly, my ears get a rest.

As 9 pm approaches, I begin to hear “Pet the Parrot, Pet the Parrot.” He thinks it is about time for the petting session that precedes his being put to bed. After the cuddling, I put him in his cage with fresh water and food. As I’m putting the cover over the cage, I hear “Nighty night, little bird.” He hasn’t gotten the idea yet that he’s the bird and I am the people. Or, possibly, he may consider that he is doing me an honor by addressing me as though I wore feathers.

I have no idea how he knows that 9 pm is approaching. I didn’t teach him to tell time, but I’m glad he can. He wakes up whenever it gets light. This isn’t my preferred time for arising in the summer. He talks quietly to himself until the time I usually get up. Then, it is “Hi John, Hi John” only a few decibles below the threshold of pain. We are still working on understanding the sleep-in-on-the-weekend thing.

Parrots spend a lot of time playing. Imitating sounds and acrobatics are their favorite games, followed by pestering people and pets. Brandy has a huge vocabulary of words, phrases, animal and mechanical sounds. It can take him hours to get through his entire repertoire. Making these sounds is something he does primarily for his own pleasure. Using them for one-on-one communication isn’t something that comes naturally to him. Gradually, he is getting the idea and seems to be quite enjoying it. But it’s not strictly a case of his learning to use English. If I’m in another room, he will often whistle a bird call or a few bars of a song. If I whistle it back to him, he will whistle something else. If I don’t respond at first, he will whistle the same thing over until I whistle it back.

Brandy and I are learning to communicate, but I’m having to learn his language as he learns mine.

You may attribute what I’ve said so far to a doting bird owner assigning human behavior to his pet. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Homo Sapiens has traditionally considered itself the only species capable of abstract thought and language. Research during the last few decades has shown us to be more Homo Conceited than Sapiens. We now know that we are not the only sentient creatures. And that is the reason why around half the people that buy parrots give them up for adoption. They think that they are purchasing a beautiful, exotic creature that will add to their pleasure if they provide it with food and shelter. They don’t realize that an animal like a parrot has emotional needs too; and those take a lot more work to satisfy. Developing a relationship with a parrot is a two way street. They will learn to use speech to communicate with their people, but they require that the people learn their language at the same time. In the wild, they use vocalizations to broadcast messages like “a predator is approaching” or “this is my territory.” For communication between individuals, their native tongue is body language. It takes them awhile to learn that they can communicate one on one via vocalizations. At first, Brandy would respond to being offered a tidbit of food he didn’t want by striking at the offering hand—not very polite. Now, he understands that I don’t appreciate my hand being lunged at by something that wears a can opener on the front of its face. If offered something he doesn’t want, he will turn his head and say “no.” The effort that it takes to develop this sort of understanding isn’t optional. Deprived of the mental stimulation afforded by a deepening understanding between a parrot and its human “flock”, a parrot will develop psychotic and self-destructive behavior.

This means that having Brandy around is not a lot less work than raising a child. We don’t have to face issues like visits to the Principle’s office or disputes over car keys. But, my children, being of the same species, were a lot easier to communicate with. In fact, Brandy is very much like an autistic child that will always be about five years old.

Is it worth it? For most people, no. For me, you bet. Developing a relationship which is based on understanding and respect with another species is an exotic experience indeed.