Copyright Pamela Clark Sept 2000. All rights reserved. Parts or whole may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.
The Optimal Environment: Part Four – The Social Climate
By Pamela Clark
The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions –
the little soon forgotten charities of a kiss or smile,
a kind look, a heartfelt compliment, and the countless
infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1828
We can not, in any discussion of optimal environment, ignore the issue of "social climate." However, as humans living in a busy society, this is an issue that we do largely ignore in our own lives. We have to. So many of us live in cities too populated for our tastes, or in families wherein too much animosity exists. We work at jobs in which we are treated as if we do not matter. Our feelings are expendable. We have to disregard our own personal feelings, if we are to keep our homes, our jobs, and our families…or at least we think we have to. Thus, we have evolved into a way of living in which we largely ignore our feelings about the social climate of the work place and even our homes.
No so with our parrots. Parrots are, by definition, social creatures. They are flock animals, traveling and feeding together as a group. The majority of the activities in which they engage are done as a group. As prey animals, the health and integrity of the flock is essential to their ability to survive. However, the flock brings to a single parrot many other things besides feelings of safety and security. The flock provides opportunity for frequent and variant social interaction, learning skills, and just good fun.
The emotional and physical health of the flock is of paramount significance to them. It is critical to their feelings of safety. Thus, they are masters at ascertaining and measuring this from watching the other flock members. This does not change just because they live in our homes, rather than in the wild.
There are both positive and negative elements of the social climate in our own homes that can have a significant impact on our parrots. The most extreme example of this would be the female African Grey who destroys her feathers, the very things that would insure her survival in the wild, solely because of the feelings of constant anxiety and fear that she senses from her owner, who remains in an abusive relationship.
The History of Skepticism
There are those who will readily dispense with the idea that our own feelings can have a significant and ongoing detrimental impact on our birds. There is even historical basis for skepticism regarding the emotional lives of animals and birds, as well as their intelligence. This skepticism has had its roots in an event that occurred in the early 1900’s and concerned a German mathematics professor and his horse, Hans. This professor had given Hans lessons in counting, spelling, simple arithmetic, the concept of color and musical theory and believed his horse to be a prodigy because Hans was able to correctly answer questions designed to test his knowledge by tapping his foot the correct number of times in response. The originally skeptical scientific community was eventually won over, and agreed that Hans was a genius.
It was an experimental psychologist named Oskar Pfungst who eventually exposed the true nature of Hans’ gifts. After a long and intensive study he was able to prove that Hans was merely reacting to subtle visual cues from his trainer and observers. If observers did not know the correct answer to a question posed to Hans, or if Hans was unable to see their faces, he could not answer even the simplest question correctly. The horse had been taking his cues from almost imperceptible shifts of body posture or facial expression in members of the audience, which occurred due to their involuntary relaxation of tension when Hans reached the correct number of taps in response to a question.
The scientific community reacted to this discovery in such a manner that they no longer entertained open-minded investigation into the animal mind, or animal emotions. Since then, and until very recently, skepticism in regards to the emotions and intelligence of animals and birds has been a common and widely held attitude.
However, fortunately, this is changing due to the investigation of many animal researchers, among them Donald Griffin, author of The Question of Animal Awareness. Thus, we are once again taking a more open-minded approach to evaluating the emotional lives of other species, and no where could this be more appropriate than in our experiences with our companion parrots. At the same time that this shift in attitude has taken place, other researchers have been investigating the essence of human emotions and thoughts, and the energies created by these. Some of their findings, which follow, will also bring light to this discussion.
Emotions Have Energy
William Collinge, Ph.D. provides an elegant discussion of human emotions and how they translate into measurable and tangible energies in his book, Subtle Energy. Dr. Collinge writes, "Earlier this century, Albert Einstein showed through physics what the sages have taught for thousands of years: everything in our material world – animate and inanimate – is made of energy, and everything radiates energy. The earth is one enormous energy field – in fact, a field of fields. The human body is a microcosm of this – a constellation of many interacting and interpenetrating energy fields."
He goes on to discuss many studies proving this statement, one of which was performed by Rollin McCraty at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California. McCraty and his colleagues found that the effects of our thoughts and emotions on the heart could be seen in the wave forms that show up in our electrocardiogram. Stress, depression, anxiety or frustration shows up in a more irregular wave pattern. When a person is in a state of calm or peace, the wave form is "smoother and more coherent." Mr. Collinge finishes his report of his study with the statement, "As you might expect, our heart signal does not stop at the skin, but radiates into the space around us. The field of the heart can actually be measured four or five feet away with a magnetometer. Since the wave forms of this field change with our thoughts and emotions, you can see how it is possible that with our magnetic sensitivity, we can sense "bad vibes" or "good vibes" from someone around us and why we feel uncomfortable around someone who is angry or agitated, depressed or fearful."
Dr. Collinge is not alone is his assessment of the manner in which our emotions affect the energy that we transmit to those around us. In his discussion of the principles behind the relatively new science of vibrational medicine, Richard Gerber, MD states, "This theoretical perspective is based upon the understanding that the molecular arrangement of the physical body is actually a complex network of interwoven energy fields…. There is a hierarchy of subtle energetic systems that coordinate electrophysiologic and hormonal function as well as cellular structure within the physical body…. These unique energy systems are powerfully affected by our emotions and level of spiritual balance as well as by nutritional and environmental factors."
Parrots and Children…Sensitive "Receivers"
One of the underlying principles taught in family therapy is that children are very sensitive to the tensions or underlying problems in their parents’ marriage, and that much so-called acting out behavior is unconsciously aimed at restoring balance or harmony. It is often recognized that children are quite sensitive to the energies of others. Even most adults would admit that being in the presence of someone who is feeling love and tenderness feels very different from being in the presence of someone in a state of agitation.
Parrots are equally as sensitive as children to the energies emitted by the humans around them. I believe that parrots, like children, also sometimes become the "symptom bearers" of imbalance and disharmony in their owners, or the entire the household, and that a percentage of screaming and feather picking behaviors fall into this category. I remember a statement that avian behavior consultant Chris Davis once made to the effect that African Greys will "show us our own issues." The same is true, more or less, of all parrots to some degree, although I believe it to be truer of greys than any other species.
Further, it is also widely recognized that those who offer emotional support and/or physical care to people, such as therapists and nurses, often become burnt out and either change occupations or somehow distance themselves from their clients’ emotional neediness to the point where they often become less effective at their jobs. They may have entered their profession with lots of enthusiasm and energy, but were unable to conserve their own vital energy and had this gradually sapped over time by continual interaction with those who were sick or had low energy.
If a person is depressed or sick, he will absorb energy from those around him who have an abundance. This is why it usually feels good to be around someone of high energy. It raises our own. From my observations, parrots who sit in cages or on stands all day are often involuntary "receivers" for low or negative energies prevalent in their environments. Further, they have no relief from this and little exercise that might allow them to work off some of the tension this can create.
Happy People Make for Happy Parrots
I have repeatedly had the same conversation with different clients. I will suggest that perhaps the stress they are experiencing could be affecting their parrots. Typically, the reply states, "Oh…but I’m not acting stressed!" I believe that the work of Dr. Collinge and Dr. Gerber, coupled with the story of Hans, the horse, and his incredible ability to perceive subtle changes in body language and facial expression of the humans around him would convince us that we do not have to act "stressed" for our parrots to pick up on these emotions we may be feeling.
Accordingly, I will assert that our parrots are extremely sensitive to the subtle changes in our own emotions, as well as the emotional health of our households. Simply stated, emotions have energy. Any actions we can take to insure greater happiness and harmony within our households and ourselves will significantly benefit our parrots. Parrots enjoy the greatest emotional and physical health when living in happy households.
Elements of Wild Society
Further, there are many practices that will serve to increase our parrots’ sense of safety, as well as their satisfaction with their social experience in our homes. In seeking to discover these, we must resort to using imagination in regards to their social experience in the wild as our initial guide, as well as the few bits and pieces of information we have about how birds live in the wild.
What might be some of the elements of a parrot’s emotional life in the wild? We know that, as prey animals, feelings of safety are crucial to them. We also have been able to observe, from studies of wild behavior, that parrots enjoy participating in group interaction with seeming enthusiasm, which is evidenced by physical play, mutual vocalization and group movement and interaction. We also, both from observations made in the wild and amongst the parrots in captivity, understand the strength of the pair bond and the affection that can exist between parrots that are producing young.
Cues can also be obtained from observing their lives with us. Watching young African Grey parrots learn to fly and land skillfully provides an awareness of their satisfaction and enjoyment in achievement. The happy tail wag and fling of the head at the end of a successful flight makes this apparent. Parrots need to feel competent. They instinctively know whether or not they are "successful" in our homes, and whether or not we like and appreciate them. In the book Wild Minds this is underscored in a discussion of parrots in general, and especially the grey parrot, by the simple statement, "As it is for human infants, imitation is fueled by a clear social payoff." Parrots look to their human caretakers for information as to whether or not they are successful.
Predictability and Rituals
Our challenge then is to attempt to replicate some of these essential elements in the domestic environment. When we examine what might make a parrot feel safe and secure, aside from wise arrangement of the physical elements in the environment, the matter of predictability comes to mind. When we might choose to try to "imagine" a parrot’s life in the wild, rarely do we see him in relation to his surroundings. However, patterns in nature and the behavior of other animals are supremely predictable. The sun rises and sets predictably on schedule. Other species of birds, as well as ground dwelling animals, will enter the area and feed at certain times of each day. It is only the behavior of predators that often carries the quality of wild unpredictability.
The simple addition of "rituals" to our interactions with our parrots can serve to reproduce some of this most appreciated predictability in the domestic environment. These are especially useful during the morning and evening social times many of us enjoy. My own parrots take quite apparent delight in the simple rituals I have created here. In the morning, I uncover each psittacine individual. In an affectionate duet of behavior, each parrot and I have a few brief moments in interaction that is always the same. The parrots have been as much responsible for participating in the creation of these as I have been. Over time, through intimate and loving fun, we have taught each other a subtle duet of greeting.
And, each greeting is unique to each individual parrot. With my African Grey, Rollo, I must wait until he yells his typical, sing-songy "hell-o-oh" before taking him out of his cage, whereupon he throws himself upside down in my hand and I raspberry his tummy. My little Senegal, Ruby, simply crawls up under my chin for head scratches and purrs like a kitten. As I place her on top of her cage to await breakfast, she ducks her chin quickly in a silent request for one more scratch…and I am happy to oblige. Goldie is always antsy from hunger in the morning, manifesting some food anxiety…a lasting vestige of her too-early weaning perhaps. As I uncover her, I greet her with the question, "Do you feel like a nut?"…followed by the nonsensical observation "Sometimes you feel like a nut, and sometimes you don’t!" as I hand her a walnut or other healthy and immediate beginning to her breakfast. And so it goes…. I travel around the room, extending my unique greeting to each individual and always in the same order, never deviating from my established pattern in any way. Their delight in this morning ritual could not be more evident, as each rushes to play their part.
Our "flock language" also serves to create a measure of predictability for our group of parrots. I will feed the birds, always in the same order, saying the same things. "Do you want some water?" "Are you hungry? Here’s your breakfast." When I leave the house, I proclaim, "Mama’s goin’ bye-bye. I’ll be right back!" Once again, their behavior indicates significant satisfaction with my own predictability. There is nothing that brings more happiness to some parrots than to be able to predict what their favorite human will do.
And, in an even more direct way, we can re-create the sense of security inherent in living within a flock by paying attention to what scares our parrots. It is important that we watch their body language for indications of alarm or fear, take this reaction seriously, and seek to reassure them verbally, as well as physically. Many things about our world can be frightening to a parrot. After all, it is our world, not theirs. I have noticed that many phobic parrots are owned by people who tend not to pay attention, nor take their bird’s fears seriously, or who simply can’t read the body language of a frightened bird. They don’t think ahead about what will be likely to make the bird afraid. Or if they do notice, they do not respond with a nurturing approach, out of a simple lack of understanding of the importance of doing so. For instance, it is a simple enough matter to ask the friend wearing the frightening baseball cap to remove it when he enters our home.
On the other hand, it is important to guard our parrots in whatever way we can against unpredictability that is frightening. Violence, anger resulting in loud noises or too-swift movements…all can be unsettling to a parrot. When it’s a grey parrot, the resulting anxiety can often be cumulative, resulting in increased behavior problems over time.
The Flock Dynamic
The instinctive delight in group interaction can also be re-created in our homes, especially those in which more than one parrot resides. In the morning, my Double Yellow-headed Amazon will often be the one to beat me to the punch, by asking with loud enthusiasm, "So, do you want some music?!" And on goes the stereo to play their musical favorites while I prepare their breakfast. All react with much vocalizing and ready participation in this special social time. Predictably, I usually play one of several children’s favorites by the Canadian artist, Raffi. His music touches the heart of adults, children and parrots alike.
Another way in which I have found I can recreate the more social interactions of the flock is to simply go around and share a morsel of whatever meal I am enjoying with each parrot. Predictably, I travel in the same order, dishing out a piece of this or a piece of that.
Homes in which only one parrot might reside will have a greater challenge to re-create a "flock dynamic," but such owners can certainly include their parrot(s) in the more social human rituals, such as grooming/preening in the bathroom in the morning, and enjoying meals together. Much use can also be made of the visits from friends. Here, we take the opportunity provided by such visits to order pizza and this is shared by all, humans and parrots alike.
Parrots in the wild are playful and have even been observed to make snowballs and play with them. If we allow ourselves to become more playful, our parrots will respond happily and with appreciation of the exuberance and abandon such silliness can manifest. Physical play, such as tossing things back and forth can also be appreciated. However, the majority of my parrots adore it most when we engage in mutual silliness. There is nothing my Amazon loves more than when I stand by his cage, calling him over dramatically saying, "Come ‘ere you! Come ‘ere you sexy Amazon. Give me a kiss!!!"
The Matter of Affection
The affection needed by parrots in their interactions with us is an ephemeral matter to contemplate, in terms of how we choose to recreate this. We must maintain a balance in our interactions with them so that they do not come to see us as "mate." However, as any small child does, they are hungry for our love and attention. For most, this is not a difficult thing to provide. And, this affection is actually most effectively provided in small doses. I usually do not spend large quantities of time with each parrot, interacting in a close physical manner. I neither have the time for this, nor do I want to encourage the type of "mate bond" in which large quantities of physically close time spent with a parrot often results. Instead, I will travel around the room several times a day, showing them my love in small ways for a few minutes at a time.
Admittedly, they seem to thrive on this type of frequent, cheerful, loving and silly interaction. Again, parrots know how we feel about them. If we take the time to get in touch with how much we love them, they will understand this in whatever manner we choose to display it.
The Social Pay-off
Lastly, in their greed to obtain our attention, parrots are very much like small children. They want a reaction to their behavior. They are happier when this is an appreciative reaction, but they will make do with a negative reaction as well. Psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson once wrote about this in his book, How to Discipline With Love. He discusses in this book the "Law of the Soggy Potato Chip," using the analogy that children would rather have a soggy potato chip than no potato chip at all. Similarly, they would rather have negative attention than no attention at all. And, so it is with parrots.
In attempting to provide the optimal social environment for our parrots, it is important that we train ourselves to catch them in the act of "being good." This is especially critical with young parrots who are under the age of three. Any desirable behavior, including eating, bathing, playing with toys, vocalizing in pleasant ways, should be noticed and rewarded verbally with effusive praise and attention. Thus, the parrot will have clear guidance as to how it can be successful in our home and life with us. When "negative" behaviors initially manifest, it is often best to simply ignore these as a first reaction. As Mr. Hauser illustrated above, the social payoff is a powerful reward for parrot behavior. It is important that we structure any social payoffs we are providing so that our parrots have the opportunity to learn the behaviors that will lead to success in captivity.
On a subtler note, frequent are the stories of parrots who are "in tune" enough with their owners to instinctively know when a behavior they manifest elicits a reaction of irritation in the human. Thus, we must also guard against "involuntary" teaching. Our emotional reactions to a parrot’s behavior, even if not manifested overtly, are often enough to encourage or reinforce the behavior if the parrot is bored and lacks other challenges in his life. As with Hans, our own involuntary and subtle body language is at work in these situations, and the only path out of the downward spiral between parrot and human in which such a dynamic can result is to work with our own emotions inwardly. It simply never works to hand over to a parrot the power to upset you.
The Importance of Learning
It is equally important that we not flag in our efforts to allow them opportunities for learning new skills. Learning is important to growth in all species. Taking the time to provide the focused attention necessary to teach tricks, skills, or verbal labels will go a long way toward balancing a parrot’s emotional life in such a way that they can benefit from the pleasant feelings any intelligent animal feels when successful in some accomplishment.
I believe that the last two techniques, providing positive social payoffs for desirable behavior and teaching new skills, are actually the two fundamentally most powerfully methods we can use to keep ourselves firmly in the position of "flock leader" because each patterns the parrot to look to us for guidance and instruction. This sets the tone for a deeper relationship, wherein the parrot comes to trust and rely on the human caregiver rather than simply becoming "obedient." And once again, it is with parrots as it is with children… being able to rely on another for guidance as well as care will create a greater feeling of security in the dependent one.
Expressions of Love
Lastly, one of the best things we can ever do for a parrot is to be able to look at him, and say, "I love you so much. You are the most magnificent creature I have ever seen. I am grateful for your presence in my life, and I will take care of you well. I will never forsake you."
This is a broad statement, and yet I’m sure it is not unlike those which wild parrots convey to each other every day. Conditional affection is not usually a part of the bonds animals manifest. The measure of difficulty we might have in saying the same thing is only a manifestation of our distance from nature, our dissociation from all things wild. I write often about the lessons parrots teach us. This is a good example. The above statement springs to my lips unbidden in response to a gift of communication from one of my parrot companions, or simply when I view a newly bathed Blue and Gold Macaw preening her beautiful feathers.
I am so grateful to have felt that emotion…it makes me a better person. And, certainly, the energy behind that emotion is not lost on my parrots. They know that they are in my heart to stay…that I will not forsake them.
When any one of us can feel that emotion toward a companion parrot, it is difficult to say who is more the winner…the parrot or the person. For, the emotional resources necessary to make such a declaration run deep and are "wildish." And, isn’t this the direction we’d like to grow in as humans, anyway?
Last Update: 09/11/01