As I write this, a Raven is croaking away on the phone pole out front. Or is it?
In horror films, “the call is coming from inside the house” ratchets up the tension. In my world, it explains why the raven has just started singing along with Rossini.
Living with parrots is not for everyone, but we’ve been doing it for 30+ years, so I’m starting to get the hang of it. It’s a big commitment (more on that in a bit), but it has also been incredibly enriching. Let’s start by meeting the birds:
Harlan, an 11 year old African Grey Parrot. I first met him when he was around 3 months old, an awkward little bundle of feathers. We had to wait until he was at least old enough to know how to perch before he came home with us.
Lucy is essentially a rescue bird. We think she’s around 13-14 years old; she was probably about 6 when she joined us. She had lived with an older woman whose failing health led her to give up her bird. Lucy was not well socialized and was somewhat “cage bound” — where a bird does not know how to react to new situations because they have rarely been outside their cage.
Parrots are pretty darn smart, and they have a lot to say. But they can’t type, so you’re getting my side of the story as well.
Parrots talk — everyone knows that, and it’s part of their appeal. It used to be thought that they didn’t understand what they were saying, that they were just imitating sounds and words they heard. To a certain extent, that’s true but they also can use words with understanding and intent. Dr. Irene Pepperberg famously demonstrated this use of human language by parrots, starting with Alex — an African Grey who became so well known that he got an obituary in the Economist and the New York Times at his passing. Dr. Pepperberg’s work continues with the next generations of greys, and with other researchers as well.
When we first brought Lucy home, Harlan eyed the new creature in his room with some suspicion. We introduced them, then he watched quietly as we set up her cage, gave her some treats and tried to get her settled in to her new life. After we finally left the room, he spoke up at last: “Corn? … Apple? … Popcorn? … … Hello?” It was clearly his way of trying to figure out if they had common interests.
Lucy used to experience night frights, and I wake up to the sound of her flapping wildly around in her cage. I’d rush in, turn on the light and try to reassure her. Harlan picked up on my language and started joining me in the calming talk “it’s okay… it’s okay… you’re okay”. It makes sense that he’d say that when she was in a night fright (thankfully very rare these days) but he sometimes says it to us when we seem to be upset. He doesn’t know what the words mean literally, but he knows when those words are appropriate.
On a purely amusing level, he can imitate my husband and me calling each other’s name — in our voices. He likes to imitate a telephone conversation: okay, sure, uh-huh, alright, sure, okay see ya later. (Sometimes he prefaces the conversation with the sounds of touchtone dialing.) Loud noises fascinate parrots, so he does a great version of my husband’s dramatic sneezes.
Lucy is not very verbal, with only a few phrases of human words — her name, “we’ll see you later” — spoken like an 80 year old woman who has enjoyed a lot of whiskey and cigarettes. She does do a very convincing version of the basement door creaking open and a few other sounds. She also has an array of vocalizations that convey specific mood — happy squeals, affectionate chirps, busy-bird grunting — that can get her message across as clearly as words.
The sounds Harlan really likes are those that get a reaction. He imitates the sound of find-my-phone, because he noticed I’d come into the room where the sound is coming from. He watched me pish for birds when I filled the feeder at our cabin, so he started pishing when he wants something to watch. He also imitates various birds — including a towhee who kept coming to the window to find the “other towhee” infringing on its turf. His favorites are the ravens, and he plays with their sounds, singing musical numbers with a corvid gurgling-caw tone. He also likes knocking his beak against things to get attention… walls are his favorite but any hard surface will do.
We have lived with five parrots over the last 30 years; each of them had distinctly different personalities. It’s hard to know how much of the difference is due to species, or sex (4 females, 1 male), background circumstances (2 rescues, 3 hand-fed babies) or just individual nature. Whatever the reasons may be, it’s been very interesting to observe, and very rewarding to experience the give-and-take with each individual. Even the smallest members of the family, like parakeets, cockatiels and lovebirds, can have outsized personalities.
Lest this sound like too much of a sales pitch for living with parrots, they are a lot of work if you’re doing it right. Those lively minds need stimulation; they are flock animals and they need interaction. The other problem is that people sometimes spend lots and lots of time with a new bird, but then taper off. The bird wonders what it has done wrong; in parrot culture, being left alone is a form of punishment.
They’re also messy. You would be too if you ate with your feet. Unlike cats or dogs who gobble every crumb of food that comes their way, parrots throw food all over. In the wild they normally tear apart fruits to get at the seeds, or throw the nuts and fruits they’re eating from the tree and then feed on it on the ground. Our birds throw their food to the floor then walk down to eat it. There’s also the feathers and down everywhere. And although you can potty train them (some better than others), you usually end up with some poop on your shoulders from time to time.
Our birds are outside their cages whenever we’re home, but we can’t let them wander while we’re away — too many dangerous things to chew on, too many places to get into. Because they’re going to spend time inside, you want to give them as big a cage as possible — tough when you live in a small space.
It can be hard to find pet sitters if you leave town for a few days. Most people understand how to care for dogs and cats; very few understand parrot care. We’re fortunate to have family and friends who like the birds, and who can even spend a little social time with them. Vet care is also a concern — birds are just so different. We’re lucky to live in an area with several avian vets.
The big overarching consideration is that it’s a long-term commitment. Bigger birds like macaws and Amazons can live well over 50 years. Harlan could live into his 40s or beyond. Small birds like Lucy still live 20+ years. You have to think about what will happen to your bird if it outlives you. Many parrot owners set up trusts for their birds.
Last but not least, there’s the conservation aspect. If you have been thinking about living with a parrot, make sure you’re getting it from a domestic breeder. (Better yet, check with a parrot rescue group — many good birds need homes!) They will be better socialized and healthier, but most importantly you won’t be contributing to the brutal and devastating trade in wild birds. Parrot populations suffer from the same habitat losses and other environmental concerns as other birds, but they have also been hugely impacted by poaching.