What’s a parrot want from a human?

Full transcript from my keynote speech at the 2019 FeatherFest presented by the CT Parrot Society.

Relationships come in an infinite number of definitions, with time as the definition itself. The quality of time spent together along a timeline of history. That being said, my relationship with our UPS delivery person isn’t like my relationship with my sister. The relationship I have with our delivery person is transactional. If I order something, they bring me my order. Nothing more, nothing less. We spend an equivalent amount of time on our transaction. Just enough to complete that transaction.

My sister and I have our lifetime of history along with quality time spent together. It is emotional, deep and full of personal memories and feelings with and toward each other. There is nothing transactional about us.

2019 is a big year of relationship milestones in my family. My parents are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. My husband and I are celebrating our 20th, and our daughter is marrying the love of her life in November. Three generations of relationship stories creating relationship definitions along 3 different timelines.

I asked my parents what made their relationship 60 years strong. What was their secret sauce? I’d only been present for 20 of those 60 years. They both laughed, and almost in unison sang out, humor! Mom followed up with, “We laugh at each other all the time!”

I asked our daughter, Katie why she was marrying Nick? “Mom, I love him! He loves me. And we love who we are together!” Yes, a mom sleeps well at night with this definition.

I asked Cali what our gravy on potatoes was to him. He responded, “Honey the gravy on our potatoes in my patience.” Which no one can deny. We laughed at our own definition.

It takes a full toolbox to walk the long road of relationship. Any relationship. And that toolbox requires specific skills. You wouldn’t try the humor of a 60 year marriage at the beginning. That level of humor could hurt feelings at one year. You don’t need the level of patience of 20 years at the beginning either. In the beginning, everything is lovable and loved. After 20 years, those lovable actions by each other may become annoyances. Which requires the patience to remember how lovable all that was in the beginning.

So what does a parrot want with a human in a relationship? Excellent flocking skills. Excellent flocking to a parrot is together. Parrots communicate constantly. From the moment the flock wakes to the moment they perch to roost, they are in constant communication. A parrot wants communication, together. Excellently. This exposes the crux of the issue. And that crux is in the human, not the parrot. Parrots flock. They form groups of like-minded, socially fluid communicating individuals who are more interested in the health and welfare of the flock than their own desires. They will choose flock health over their own wants. There is no such thing as a rogue parrot in a flock. Socially, parrots think synergistically. We often talk about having trouble seeing parrot body language, or catching their ques. They communicate through nuance and finite.

Humans herd. We choose like-minded groups of ourselves. Those that will not challenge our beliefs, morals, ideas or absolutes. We chose groups that edify and agree. We do not put ourselves equal to any member of that group. We will not choose for the better health of that group. We are self-motivated and have no problem watching a group member get eaten by the hyenas knowing we’ll be okay. Humans are also lousy communicators. Social de-evolution and cellphones have seen to that. Once upon a time, if a man loved a woman he would write her a love letter. “Dear Sarah, your eyes are as blue as pools of cool water. But a word spoken from your rose-colored lips, and I fall at your feet.” Now he drops a heart emoji, bloop! and she‘s supposed to figure that out. Look at the state of affairs globally and nationally, there is no arguing our inept skills at communication.

So there’s a massive gap between a companion parrot and a human. Both in communication and social drives. That’s the gap we have to mind. As my British friends are oft to say, we’ve got to mind that gap.

We need tools to improve us, not them. We need to rethink their definition of a relationship, excellent flocking skills, and create communication tools to upgrade our skill set. This brings us to behavior modification. It‘s a tool. But it’s just a transactional tool. If you step up, I’ll give you a treat. If you station, I’ll give you attention. If you do not bite, I will give you positive reinforcement. Behavior modification is a transactional tool only. You will attain a comfortable level of relationship, like I have with our delivery person. It is a tool, appropriate for many little transactional problems, but it is not a tool for relationship building. Because it is not what our companion parrots wants in a relationship.

We need even better tools. So minding this gap, lets look at tools we already use in our daily life. Things lying around, used and part of our lifestyle already. And consider retooling them for better application of communication. No need in making this complicated. We only need to improve ourselves inside this lifestyle, allowing excellent communication together.

Let’s retool food. We all need it. We are not communicating with it all the time. A parrot’s food bowl is not communication. It is a transaction. If I look in this bowl, there will be food to eat. Let’s make it a conversation.

First things first. Nutrition. It’s 2019, there is an endless supply of information and options for feeding our parrots well. Food is a big point of conversation in social media. Some parrot groups sound like scientists arguing over the elemental table. Today we know so much about feeding our parrots well, we argue about it. But wait, here’s a question. What about you? What about me? Isn’t this a relationship? Are we feeding ourselves and our parrots well? Are we devoting as much passion into our own health as we do our birds? If not, why? You are the firewall between the world and your companion. What if you get sick? What if you end up in the hospital? What then? Treating your food and your healthy lifestyle with as much love and respect as you do your bird is mandatory. A relationship requires it. To not is to miss the point of a great relationship at the start.

What’s another retooling of food? Well, food is a group event shared all day long in a flock. Hunting, scavenging, sharing, separating, collecting, categorizing. It’s a big deal! How can we harness that event in our human lifestyle? Let me tell you what Kirby taught me about foraging in a house with humans.

We eat like our parrots. I say this first so the rest of this makes sense. I shop and anything I bring home is appropriate for man or feathered beast. I carry twenty some bags of food in twice a month. Produce and dry goods. As I lay these out on the counter, Kirby… pirate, pillager, thief and lurker begins his personal foraging event. He will inspect every item of every bag to make sure I haven’t screwed any of this up. He’ll snack on all things Kirby Certified. He forages. One afternoon he was particularly piratey, and I stopped to watch his joy.

I thought to myself, “That boy is so happy foraging… “ and the lightbulb went on. I need to create space and time for all to forage. From that day forward we all forage. I have 20 some bags of fresh foods to clean, chop, store and categorize. I need to inspect things and create stashes for easy cooking and eating later. I am foraging anyway! When I get home, I bring Felix into the kitchen/dining room. He sits on his tent tree with his while bowl waiting for his share of food communication. Kirby is pirating and I have no need to assist him in his skillset. He’ll get what he wants alongside us. The Horde of cockatiels are in the dining area in front of their window ready to accept tasting bits into their foraging tray. And the macaws are ready to fly slamming themselves against the child gate inserted in the pass through window above the kitchen sink in their efforts to get their share of communication snacks. They make a big deal about flying as hard as they can to attach themselves to that gate, then yell out in celebration of their skills and access to whatever it is I‘m currently chopping up.

For 3 and a half hours I chop and clean while they taste everything I am chopping and cleaning. We forage, together, communicating through taste and laughter. Together. Excellence in flocking is excellence in communication, together. I will use that word often today.

I will say a word. Consider what comes to mind for you personally. Thanksgiving. Set the pilgrim story aside. What comes to mind when thinking on Thanksgiving? Family, love, food, laughter? What is it about Thanksgiving that is so universal? The visceral communication in the food via tradition delivering generations of memories. That’s what. A parrot would call that excellent communication. Grandma has passed, but we passed her gravy down to Aunt Garnet. Her coleslaw to your daughter-in-law. And even though they are no longer with us, their love and true self remains with us through their food recipe. Food is a powerful transient messaging service. Food is communication.

The late Anthony Bourdain once said you need not speak languages to visit foreign countries. Just find a local, share a meal with them and you‘ve said everything there is to say, together.

When we are dating someone, what do we do? We share food. Dinner and movie is cliche. Food helps deliver more than our words can. I share a meal with our flock whenever I can. Literally sit at a table with a plate specific for this moment. It will be messy. It will require my full attention. And it will be excellent communication together.

I make warm meals to share. I spoon feed the macaws, drop dollops of sweet potato or brown rice in Felix’s tree stand bowl. Kirby flies in and out scavenging while hiding under my arm grabbing bits off the plate. The cockatiels are singing and eating from their foraging tray. We eat and share the ideas of together and comfort. I embed the essence of together via this powerful transient messaging service. It is our own thanksgiving moment.

Food! Our new retooled tool for excellent communication. It’s only a matter of redefining the delivery and the time and we’ve completely upgraded our human communication.

We need another retooled tool. Something we use all the time, but do not take advantage of it’s power. How about toys? Materials and toy are another tool for communication. Parrots manipulate, separate, identify, and play with materials (toys) throughout the day. What can we do to simulate foraging, playing and such?

In my world I shop toys online. I don’t have the time to drive out into the world, so I shop my favorite toy makers and have things delivered. I take advantage of this once a month to create a forage playtime with our flock. Now every parrot is different and will see this all within their own opinion. Felix just wants his new toy hung at the end of his digesting perch. He’ll handle things from there. The cockatiels, want me out of the way of their new toys. Kirby doesn’t do toys. Pirates don’t have time for toys. But I hang his toy in his day cage he’s rarely in for those moments he forgets he’s a pirate.

When the box arrives, I hand out to those not needing me and my big ideas, and then I bring the remaining macaw toys in the box into the bird room. There Butters, Snickers and I will forage materials together. I place the box on the table and call them over. They begin by throwing everything on the floor. I laugh. They laugh. I pick everything up and put it back in the box. We laugh. Then we test, biting, ringing, playing, pulling, banging and foraging all the materials. We laugh together. We look at each other and watch what each other is doing. We have too much fun communicating not saying a word, but playing. Then I tell them to pick what they want. Butters chooses her first toy, Snickers his. And we make two piles, one for each. And they help me hang their chosen toys in their cage.

Now these toys aren’t just something hanging there. They are full of the essence of together. They have a definition and a seal of flock approval. They mean flock. They represent a foraging day. They say without a word all that needs expressing. These toys are more than toys, they are edifications to our love and relationship. They mean something more. They are memories and moments.

Now we have food and toys retooled for excellent communication together. We need another one.

How about locations, settings and views? It’s something we live inside and laid out already. But is it communicating together excellently?

I’m staying at the Red Lion in Cromwell. Nice hotel. Everything says I’m welcome. And nothing says I belong.

If you stay at a relative’s house or friend’s house for whatever reason, they’ll lovingly say, “Make yourself at home!” That’s fine, because everything says you are welcome. But nothing says you belong. So you end up wondering at 1 in the morning if you can get water from the kitchen. You don’t want to wake anyone. Because you don’t belong, not really.

Such is the power of locations and settings. They deliver a clear, comforting message to our parrots. You are home with your flock. Or they do not.

We bought our home for two reasons. The addition on the back and the view from it. Our living room addition is 25 X 30 feet with 32 linear feet of windows. It‘s glorious! I love this room. It has a deck with a tin roof off the south side. So much light! I love this room and deck. The view behind our home will never change. It’s a flood plain. Three and half house lots full of space behind us, all grasses and trees. To the south is Tinney Creek. A tidal canal way that breaths off Tampa Bay waters. It feeds the lake across the street. This setup, this environment brings all of Florida’s birds into our view. From pink spoonbills to gulls to otters and turtles. And then some. The views and creatures to watch are innumerable and seasonal. Not to mention the Muscovy ducks that have no problem training me. Our backyard, view and room are priceless. We bought the house before parrots. At one time this was a humans’ living room. Now it is a flock’s bird room with 2 humans. Every parrot received their own window to look out into the world.

We share everything as a flock in this room. We play guitars and ukuleles in this room. We sing in this room. I write in this room. I nap in this room. We watch TV in this room. I read books in this room. Cali plays Xbox in this room. We eat in this room. I write speeches and then practice them in this room. We share it all plus the window views in this room.

Views for stimulation and communication. Parrots ponder and appreciate the best views. Felix’s weirdo neighborling window is real. He’ll see our neighbor and call out, “What a weirdo!” We laugh and watch his weirdo do his weirdo things. Butters watches for turtles and sounds her turtle alarm when they approach (or when they don’t). Snickers watches for turkey vultures and lets the world know they’ve arrived. We share a secret between each other at the moment of looking at neighborling, turtle or turkey vulture. Watching the world pass together.

Now we have upgraded food, toys and location/settings and views to upgrade our own communication skills to excellent! We need one more tool. I’ll just borrow this from the smartest people I know, my parents.

Humor. You will laugh. You will become superb at laughing if you’re doing this relationship with a parrot correctly. Parrots like a punch line. But I think mom and dad meant more than just laughing. They also meant prioritizing their relationship together above all other things. So that in comparison, no matter what, that other thing is laughable in value. Together, they are impenetrable.

Here’s where I will get thick in ideas. If you consider nothing I’ve said to this point, please consider the following as the most important thing I’ve said today. If you can’t get this next part straightened out, everything else will be twice as difficult and half as effective. This next bit is the nugget you really need to become an excellent flocking member.

Let’s say it’s raining, and you get stuck out in the middle of this storm. Your only path home is by foot and through muddy paths. It takes a while to get to your front door. You’re soaked, your feet are soaked and your shoes are covered in mud. It cakes them in mud.

Thankfully, after such a long and messy journey, you are home! You open your day as if you are escaping exhausting matters and walk in. You’ll eventually dry off, no worries. You’re home, that’s all that matters. The mud will eventually fall from your shoes as you go about your life in your home. No worries. The important thing is you’re home and out of all that struggle. Right? Of course not! You’ll take those shoes off at the door. You’ll change clothes and dry off before you do a thing. You don’t want to track mud and wet throughout your home. You don’t want that mess in your house.

And yet, we’ll track in Muddy Mind Shoes every day. Here’s where I get deep. It’s a good deep though.

Parrots hate stress. They will not tolerate it. They have wings, why should they? If something feels wrong, it’s stressful and they leave. The end. If they can not leave, they will bite. Because parrots will not accept stress at any level. Period.

Humans eat stress for lunch and brag about it over lunch. We accept it like we accept a paycheck. At this point in our evolution stress is so woven into our fabric of life it is not recognizable from any other item. It is something we live with voluntarily. This is not what a parrot knows, understands or identifies with at all. Again, we see two members of a relationship diametrically set apart. Another gap. The most important gap to mind.

Did you know a human is most honestly themselves when they first wake in the morning? We are truly most ourselves. The most sincere, least stressed of our self. This is the person our parrot sees first thing. This is the person they know and prefer. Because they already know this truth. They love this person. This is the person they want all the time in their relationship.

I’ve helped hundreds of flocks now, and I’ve made notes on most. I found an interesting data point while working on the Second Edition of the Art of the FlockCall. Humans get bit the most after coming home from work, or a day out in the world. That first hour is a red zone. Why? Because we are least like ourselves who they prefer. We get home covered in stress, like muddy shoes. We walk in escaping all that stressed us out and do not take off those muddy mind shoes. And our parrots reject that person because they want the other guy. That guy from this morning! They look at us and think, “Whoa! Hold up. Who are you? I want the other guy!” And depending on how stressed we are, we may just get bit. Even if we are only asking for their love and solace to help us come down from a bad day. What we are asking for them to do is get rid of our stress. And that is not what a parrot is built to do.

Muddy mind is us shake and baked, covered with the angst and human frustration built up over our day out in the world. Bad traffic, office gossip, low pay, low appreciation from above, money worries, having to complete the work of others just so we can complete our own… the list is infinite. It clings to us like mud to shoes and we forget to realize that it’s as toxic and filthy as anything we could pick up on the bottom of our shoes. It is insidious and more dangerous for its camouflage. We don‘t even see it, we’re so used to wearing this coating of stress.

It‘s imperative to get rid of this mud before we interact with our birds (or family). It’s imperative we leave that personality we’ve created out in the world, at the door. Because that person is not who we really are, they are just an actor on a stage called life. Once upon a time they considered me an Art Director… at times, Creative Director. I latched onto this persona as my personal value system. I created a story about who I was, like a character in a book, and defined myself by title and paycheck. A perfect vessel to carry stress home. Stress and that vacuous self definition made me an awful person at home. So stressed. So lost. My personality became so thick in muddy mind there was no room for anything else. I’d promised my husband I’d quit the job and find another way. He waited for a few months as I avoided giving my 2 week notice. Because I couldn’t understand who I would be if I wasn’t that Art Director plus paycheck. Who would I be then? What would I be worth? I was a mess. One Friday, end of day, I heard his motorcycle pull up at our offices. He came in, took off his helmet, saw me talking with my Creative Director about things and asked loudly, “Did you tell them you quit yet?”

He saved our life and mine that day. He broke that cycle of muddy mind forcing my hand to redefine the truth of things. He also gave me a new job. My job was to be happy. He didn’t care what that was or how I did it, but my job description was to be happy. And I could only base my success on that definition. I took 8 years to do that. This is difficult. So I understand and have walked this path of muddy mind. I know intimately of which I speak to you today. It’s why I know this is the most important gap you can work on.

So how do we handle this in our home and flock? I’ll tell you how we do this today. Cali is incredibly suited to the forces and wars of the outside world. He is close to Teflon to muddy mind. He can naturally handle it and doesn’t take the world‘s definition of himself as biblical truth to who he is as a person. Out there, they call him Lead Database Architect. In the flock he is the dad, and they do not know this Lead Database Architect guy. They don’t even want to know him because the dad is so excellent and perfect. Every morning dad says goodbye and says his I love you’s going out into the world. He enters his phone booth and puts on his cape of Lead Database Architect to perform well and strong for the company he works in. He also loves what he does while wearing his cape.

But the flock cares little of all that guy, they want dad. And even though he is skilled at muddy mind, his Teflon coating refusing much of it to stick. He has days, like all of us, where yes it’s been one of those and I’m tired and shake and baked. He needs to get that cape and coating off before the flock and he come together and to communicate. What we do is simple, but imperative.

When dad is on his way home, I begin transforming the flock. It’s been quiet and mom all day. A little music here, a little talking there, dead quiet while I write. I have to write in a mausoleum. I can not write sentences when there‘s music or TV. I can’t think. So it’s been a very mellow day. Too mellow. We have to meet dad in the emotional middle. So an hour before dad heads home I transition. I turn up lights and turn off others literally creating locations and settings brighter while defining space. I sweep, clear bowls, gather towels and tell every bird dad is coming home. All these things make it clear dad is coming home. And we as a flock together, communicate intentions of welcoming him home.

When dad arrives he says hello to every individual and then goes upstairs to take that cape off. Because the guy that just said hello is more Lead Database Architect than dad. We need dad, 100%. He goes upstairs, Snickers follows, or he takes his best buddy with him to get rid of all the shake and back coating and muddy mind stress. Together they work it out.

By the time dad comes downstairs, the rest of the flock and myself are emotionally ready to greet him. We are so close on stress free emotions, like two opposite magnets we naturally draw each other in and “snap” into place.

Muddy mind. It kills humor. Which kills communication.

So we have new retooled tools! Food, toys, locations/settings/view, and humor (no muddy mind).

Where do we put all these tools? In a toolbox to take with us to be ready to fix any situation. A toolbox of consistency, schedule and routines. Routines/schedules and all the little things that create totems and stepping stones of excellent flockings. I call them the Flock Code. Routines not only calm parrots at home, they offer ways to communicate on the road. Because on a long enough timeline, something will go wrong, and it’s the deep communication and excellent flocking skills that will get us through. As in any great relationship.

Hurricane Irma put that to the test for us. 6 days out of her landing on the west coast of FL and heading north the cone of possibility said the eye would pass over Tampa Bay. I call it the cone of possibility because only the first 24 hours is certain everything else is a guess. A great big wide cone of we don‘t know. And if you’ll remember I stated earlier, we live next to a flood plain, feeding Tinney Creek off of Tampa Bay. And oh yeah, there’s a lake across the street. Two rules in hurricanes; hide from wind, run from water. Our house is 8 and half feet above sea level at the slab. A category 4 storm laughs at that and says, “Here, hold my beer.”

So we have a handful of days to prepare to run, or stay and hide. Only the cone of possibility knows what it will be, but we better be prepped for either. For three days we did all that. House, truck and all it means to stay or go. 48 hours out the cone of possibility still called for the eye over Tampa Bay so we evacuated. Cali drove the Gypsy Zoo 2 hours out to his parents’ house in Leesburg, FL. There we’d hide from wind, there was nothing there to flood.

We unpacked and recreated to the best of our ability, the bird room inside the guest room. It was there that I stuck to the Flock Code. Warm tea, lunch. Me near them all the time. I rarely left them alone. I did the things that meant together. I took all advantages of the familiar to edify the current state of unfamiliar. That night they changed the forecast and the cone of possibility said the eye would go over… Leesburg FL. Zero sum game really. Still hiding from wind.

The worst of it came overnight. We moved the parrot cages into the hallway and closed all the bedroom doors for protection. Just in case. I slept on the tile hallway floor under their cages and stuck my finger in Kirby’s cage so he could hold my pinky. Not because he was scared, but because it really irritated him being in a cage. Kirby doesn’t do cages, and we seemed to have forgotten that.

The next day post storm, we put things back together in the guest bedroom, and I continued the flock code. We stayed one more night so they could clear the roads. When we got home, we found our house intact with electricity. It took less than an hour to put us back together again. And for the flock it was like it didn’t even happen.

Except Kirby. He flew in circles around the house screaming his freedoms and admonishing us never to do that again.

That’s the thing about real solid communicating relationships over a longer timeline. Life will bring troubles for sure, it will happen. Inside a deeper communicating flock there’s a truth that carries you through it and out the other side. In great relationships you may even laugh at that trouble as it heads your way. Because it does not understand who it’s messing with, it has no hope of staying power. Your relationship timeline proves it.




I am a Companion Animal Advocate, Author, Speaker, and Humorist. I have more words here: https://www.flockcall.com

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Kathy LaFollett

Kathy LaFollett

I am a Companion Animal Advocate, Author, Speaker, and Humorist. I have more words here: https://www.flockcall.com

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