Transcript of my Presentation at the NPR Parrot Festival — Houston TX 1/27/2018
There’s a core to parrot communication that is the very engine for harnessing a great relationship with a companion parrot. That engine is flocking. Both the noun and the verb. Parrots communicate to create, sustain, and build a healthy cooperative flock. Their communication requires every member participate and be concerned with the wellness of others, not just themselves. A Flock is a synergistic, collection of individuals driven to work together for each other’s benefit that is a balanced, healthy, and thriving membership.
Their core is polar to the human core of communication. A human’s core drive of communication is the need to influence. You’ve probably said or heard the opinion that most people don’t listen, they just wait for you to stop talking. Humans communicate to convince others, change the view of others, and gather others near to sustain their own ideas of truth. Because we herd. We do not flock. Herds create a like moving whole to protect the healthy, strong, and agreeable. All others are put the edge for elimination. This is the finished human communication product of that influence core. Parrots are not so much concerned with themselves as an influencer as they are with the whole of the flock being in order.
Parrots create balance. Humans influence for personal agendas. This core differential is what mucks up the works at the very beginning. Parrots want to flock. Humans want to influence.
For example; I assisted a young lady in her twenties who just brought home a caique. She lives in Norway and her social setting tended toward believing parrots were pets for entertainment and pride, followed by adoration based on pride. She named him Jellybean. She sought my help because Jellybean was not playing with the toys she bought. She wanted to get him to play with toys as he was in the store with his clutch mates. I realized her issue wasn’t a caique that needed help, but her needing help understanding who she brought home. The lack of toy playing was a symptom not the problem. A bit more conversation over a few emails and I learned she had been buying purple toys only. Because they matched the living room. It was the color, not the toy or it’s appropriateness that she based her purchase on. She didn’t want to understand Jellybean’s needs or his side of the lifestyle, she just wanted to influence him to play with toys that matched his cage and the living room accessories. It took a few months of emails to reveal the truth of her lifestyle choice. I sent them on Monday mornings. It was her homework. The exercises allowed Jellybean the opportunity to flock by choosing things and revealing himself to her. She and jellybean finally became fluent in their own language. She awakened to the truth of flocking and creating a companion parrot lifestyle as a relationship. Most of Jellybean’s toys no longer match the living room now. And their relationship is based on cooperation and mutual respect. They are best friends with only one purple toy.
Flocking requires a parrot to be curious. Curious about the others, the environment and what can be made out of all that. Curiosity is the power tool for communicating with our parrots. It’s a fragile state though. Distraction and stress can destroy the curiosity of a parrot. Which then leads to a breakdown in that communication we seek. Here’s the thing about stress we must understand. We humans have literally accepted and integrated stress into the human lifestyle. In 2019 we are calloused and tough. We just assume stress, live with it, maintain it and go about life with it along our side. We are so numb to stress that we look right past it as it affects our joy and health. Humans have literally assimilated stress into their daily life.
Parrots on the other hand refuse stress all together. All stress, from the smallest distraction to the largest out of place item is shunned. Because parrots do not accept, assimilate, or rationalize stress. They are hypersensitive. We may not see something as stressful, but for our parrot it is enormous. It’s important to remember the vigilance a companion parrot uses constantly looking for the possible threat of the unknown.
So if something as small as a distracting thing, action or requirement becomes a problem for our parrot, they are no longer curious but rather concerned and stressed. From the parrot’s perspective we’ve made something their problem, rather than their option to choose.
Putting an odd thing or requirement inside a normal expectation or event shuts the door to their need to flock and figure out the things around them. They can’t communicate for flocking because they are too busy deciding what to do with a thing that doesn’t belong or worse, has no reasoning behind it. It isn’t that a parrot fears new things or actions or foods. It is that the new, odd or distracting thing has not been introduced into the flock as an option waiting for placement. It simply became an unknown problem. For humans, that’s our lives every day. Stress we assimilate. For parrots, it is a problem. And flying beings leave problems behind. It’s safer.
There are only three avenues one can take in the line of communication. Let’s take a walk to explore that idea. It’s a beautiful spring day. One of the those days that is absolutely sinful not to be outside. You’re taking a walk in a perfect neighborhood. Every street has a sidewalk. Neighbors are out mowing and working in the yard. You smell fresh cut grass, and hear children laughing in the distance. This is the day of days for a walk. You’re walking with a 3 year old boy. His name is Christopher. He is so happy to be with you, to share this with you and explore. You’ve walked a half hour and gotten a half of a block. Because 3 year old boys are parrots. When they feel secure, safe and sharing their adventure with someone they love their curiosity is immeasurable. And so you walk slowly.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a firetruck comes barreling up the street and parks 2 blocks further. Sirens wailing, lights flashing, firefighters are in full gear jumping out of and off of the fire truck. They are dragging out hoses. It’s loud and today all that does not fit the expectations of this little boy. He stops dead in his tracks. He’s stressed with what he doesn’t understand.
There’s three ways you can go with this little boy. One; grab his hand a little tighter and force the forward movement with a “you’ll just have to trust me.” while pressing on. You can influence.
Two; You can stop, and give the little boy a chance to take in the scene and consider it. You can watch his body language and his eyes to see how he’s feeling about all this. You can hold his hand a little tighter reassuring him he is safe and with you and not alone. You are together in this moment. And then, you can do something magical and ask him if he knows what he sees. And let him answer. With that you can change stress and the unknown fear into anything you wish for him. You could say, “Those are superheros! The truck is full of water and the hoses are for spraying the water on a fire! They are firefighters and they wear those clothes so they don’t get burnt when they have to fight the fire and save people and property. They are brave and strong and they are going to save that house and who is in it!” Now that little boy has context, information and his curiosity is still intact. He may even be inspired to say, “I want to be a superhero like that!”
Three; you can offer an option. “Do you want to walk another way? Or do you want to get just a little bit closer to see more?”
These are the same options we have available for our companions. Option one leads to nothing. It will destroy any opportunity you would have had to join in and help your companion with communication and thereby gaining understanding.
Option Two and Three are interchangeable and lead to each other. Starting at 2 leads to 3. Starting with 3 will lead to 2. But both open up as an opportunity for communication and understanding where 1 destroys it by pure influence. Option One just makes a problem. And no companion parrot accepts a problem.
I started using the phrase Not My Problem as a way to convey the simple intention of this idea. We all know the meaning of Not My Problem, and we probably all applied that idea once in our lives. You know when you’re in an office setting, or maybe out and about and you witness another human conduct themselves in a manner that honestly just leaves you wanting that one option; To walk away with a big “Not my problem!” with a wave goodbye.
Not My Problem became a quick way for me to cipher people’s intentions with their parrots. Introducing new toys, foods or action requirements is one of the top 5 help requests I receive. And once I’ve read a person’s problem of “getting” their bird to play with, eat, or do something new I always ask one question; are you making this their problem, or their option?
Choice is our biggest tool to expand our parrot’s limited space. We have to admit that when we bring a companion parrot into the human dynamic we literally cut off their natural choices by 80%. Their life is completely redefined and limited. I am not saying they can’t live happily inside the human dynamic. I have 8 parrots who I know are happy. I am saying we must admit what we’ve asked them to become, and then compensate them with as much freedom of choice as possible inside our lifestyle. And the options we create should supply choices that have no wrong answer. You can build a 50 foot X 50 foot X 50 foot aviary, but it is no better than a macaw cage if it isn’t filled with choices that allow them to interpret, assign, and collate their flock life while sharing those projects with you as a flock member. Choice is also priceless in removing stress. Lack of stress grows curiosity that feeds off the choices and their choices reveal to us their true nature, personality and preferences.
In reference to item or action specific hopes, I’ll use Felix as an example of “Not My Problem” introductions. Because Greys are notorious for hating anyone making anything their problem. Greys tend not to like change as much as an 80 year old man.
Felix came to us at the age of 19, with a full vocabulary and from what we were able to gather, a life with a single owner. A gentleman bachelor if you will. Felix came to us with expectations that things do not change.
Felix came into a home with active parrots and multiple cages in and around his location. Every one else was flying over head to and fro and playing, hanging, and swinging on things. The idea of toys wasn’t lost to him. And he certainly didn’t seem to care about all that, because it wasn’t his problem. But when I introduced anything to him, he scrambled out of the cage as though I’d inserted a bomb that was about to detonate.
So I simply made all things an option. He has his own tree stand that’s 4 foot by 5 foot that sits next to his cage that I never close. He has another tree stand covered by a towel and filled with phone books to shred. He’ll travel back and forth and all over all that to eat from the bowls there and look out the windows. It’s his, as vistas and views have always been important to him. “See the birdie?” Is his favorite question while looking out the window. When he asks I immediately run over to see the squirrels.
I found a toy made of natural elements, neutral in colors and felt this would be the one to start Felix on his way to playing. I had it in my hand when I came home and walked into the bird room with it. His reaction was classic Felix. “I see what you have and I know what you think you are doing.” And he turned his back to me.
I walked up to him to say hello since I just got home, but I lowered the toy as I held it. I did not reference it at all. I continued to walk around the bird room cage to cage to say hello to every body else as well. I kept the toy in my hand the entire time and looked at it while speaking. I also took the time to tell both macaws, “This is NOT YOUR TOY.” You need to be clear with a macaw.
I left the room with the toy.
Felix had seen it, he had been given the chance to acknowledge this item and it is still not his problem.
The next morning I repeated the process with a bit of a difference. I walked up to Butters, then Snickers and then Kirby to say hello and visit. I let them all inspect this alien element of a toy while reminding the macaws, “This is NOT YOUR TOY.” Macaws are notorious for forgetting such matters. Felix watched this play out and Felix was getting impatient. It was certainly his turn to reject that alien element of a toy because it was not his problem. And he was full of curiosity and opinion.
I walked over to him finally, toy in hand, and started up a conversation. I raised the toy to look at it and Felix immediately ruffled his feathers and attempted to start his rejection threats. He had the 1980’s shoulder pads of disdain. I simply told him I loved him and walked away. He just about fell off his perch trying to get me to turn around. He was not done rejecting that yet. I looked at him and stated matter-of-factly, “Oh! I’m not giving you this yet. It’s not your problem. Not yet.”
I set the toy on a table in his line of sight. It was an option at this point. Something to think about only.
The next day I walked into the room and cut to the chase. “Felix,” I said, “I’m going to just leave this here in your food bowl by the window. It’s up to you to decide if you want it or not. Just let me know.”
I talk to our parrots like I do humans. Parrots learn language like children. Intonation, pronunciation, and consistent contextual application. I do not talk about apples with a banana in my hand. So all phrases and words and context can come together for them to know what I’m up to. Just because they don’t repeat words, does not mean they do not understand.
But I digress.
I left the area, but not his sight and we, together, were going to decide what he wanted with this toy. Felix scrambled over to it. Picked it up and threw it on the floor. A parrot throwing a toy on the floor is not rejection. It is just a test drive. He’s curious. I’m working with him (remember the little boy in our fire truck story?) and we are flocking around an item. He’s taking this toy for a spin. Can he control it? Does he have dominion over it? What’s it do? A good toss tells a parrot quite a bit.
I laughed and walked back into the room and said, “Felix! You are so silly!” And put it back. He spent the next few minutes laser beaming it, microwaving it and chewing on it. Then he threw it on the floor again with a fart sound. And yelled, “HERE!”
Which is Felix for come here and give me that back. Which I did by hanging it in his cage.
I rescinded ownership without applying ownership. By that simple act Felix had the choice to pick up that mantle or not. And his curiosity got the better of him. He had to choose because there was just too much interesting over in his bowl.
I’ll use Snickers as an example of hoped for reaction to a request using Not My Problem.
Snickers and I have a great relationship and communication. But there are things he and I had to work on, such as step up. Dad can get that bird to stand on his head and cluck like a chicken. But me, taking orders from me has been a point of contention. After all, he is a male Scarlet macaw at 4 years of age going on 5. He’s practically a human 13 year old boy. One doesn’t just go about ordering a 13 year old boy around successfully. And so step up between Snickers and I was a bit rough. Until one day he taught me that he’ll go anywhere I want as long as it’s not a job requirement, which for him is a problem. It’s stressful coming from a cruise director like myself. Every morning for his first bathroom go, he is required to use the shower…because it’s a natural disaster..that first one. Asking him to step up for it was rough. And one day I just waited for him to show me how he wanted to go about this. Here’s the thing. Allowing our companion to take the lead makes a human vulnerable. Our parrot may end up doing things like a parrot first. Chew on furniture, poop where we don’t want or potentially bite. Allowing a parrot to say no, or lead feels odd. Because humans don’t normally allow any other to lead, because we influence. For the record, I don’t believe in “dominance behavior issues” when it comes to parrots. Flocking is organic and synergistic, leadership roles change by the minute. Dominance is a human behavior issue.
So allowing Snickers to lead the way and show the way helped me see a simple truth; He wanted me to wait, while he hung upside down from the bathroom door frame. Then lower his legs, while hanging from his beak. I walk over, put my arm under his feet and say, “Let’s go!” I’m a fast learner like that. So now no matter where or when, if I need a step up, I put my arm out and say, “Let’s go!”
He flies right over. Every time. Because he knows this starts well, and it always ends well. And it’s not a requirement problem. It’s an option.
That’s NMP in a nutshell. Parrots flock and inside that they take responsibility in building, routines, and every thing and one in their place. When new ideas or items come into play this forces them to take some sort of action toward that problem. If it isn’t defined as an option inside the flock, it’s a problem. Approaching this like we did with our 3 year old boy and the firetruck creates space for curiosity toward all things new. If it’s not their problem. It’s an option. An important piece of communication inside this thought is leaving every encounter or conversation we have on a good note. It’s very hard to pick up from the end of a bad conversation. We want all our moments to start and end on a good note. Consider the idea of having an argument or frustrating visit with a sibling. You part ways angry or sad. The next time you get back together, it’s hard to know exactly where to start. The same goes for our companions.
Options are choices that have no wrong answer. No is as good as yes. And when our companions know their no is sacred and does not lead to further created problems, choices are even more enticing. A confident parrot is always certain choices lead to good things. It’s up to us to create and recreate choices that drive that home for our birds.
Because it is not their job to trust us. It’s our job to earn their trust. And truly the goal we should have every day is happy and confident communication. Earning trust isn’t the goal. Trust is the byproduct of great communication. It just manifests as the result. Communication that creates understanding will manufacture trust in both human and parrot.
That leaves one more human behavior issue to fix; Unreasonable Expectation. Unreasonable expectation will kill off this whole process before it begins.
Let’s look at three.
Parrots are messy. This is not up for debate.
We may be able to affect how much mess there is, where the mess ends up and what the mess is made of, but parrots are messy. And the size of the parrot does not disqualify any from this truth.
Parrots are loud. This is not up for debate.
This is a personal opinion point as well. Loud to me may not be loud to you. There’s a graphic online with decibels and photos comparing cockatoos to jet engines, and cockatiels to a sewing machine. And all species in between. Although factual, this isn’t really helpful. Loud is personal. I have 2 macaws, or two small jet engines. I can listen to them call out to their family in Bolivia and Costa Rica and it doesn’t bother me. They can holler and haw and call for hours and like a mother of 8, I just block it out. But, Felix and his whistle that takes me down to the ground. On that chart he’s only a lawn mower, but the pitch and tone and sound waves send little whistle worms into my ear canal that lay eggs and crawl down to my tail bone. I can not survive more than 30 seconds of it.
So deciding a small parrot is an option based on decibels is the wrong way to look at all of this loud business. All parrots are loud, and each human has their own interpretation of same.
Parrots without choices to make during the day become frustrated. This is not up for debate.
More importantly parrots without choices with no wrong answers with flock members helping them along the way are frustrated. You can’t buy your way out of this requirement to participate and integrate into the synergy that is flocking. Communication and understanding and working with your companion to understand their preferences, happy factors and needs means you will be integrated and functioning inside this flock with your companion. You can’t buy a good relationship. You have to build them, by hand and heart.
So let’s go back to the beginning. To communicate and understand your parrot easier, you must think like a parrot, flock like a parrot and become an active respectful member of your flock. All else just falls into place and trust grows deep and wide in such a relationship. And remember there’s plenty of time to work on all this, we’ve entered a relationship with a companion who’s lifespan accommodates a fully functioning, growing and changing relationship.
A flock, to the very end.