21 October 2010

Parrots, Mutual Destruction Theory, and The Arts

Parrot owners are quite familiar with the theory of mutual of destruction. The most fortunate of parrot-keepers have neighbors like mine: a family with a trombone playing child.

This is a new revelation at The Feather Dorm, but a welcome one. I arrived home today to the noise, above the screams of Cher as I turned the key in the deadbolt, of a baying trombone on my downstairs neighbor's porch. The sans-melodic sound of the boy working out some sort of scale was music to my ears, if to no one else. This child's interest in musical art has given all Feather Dorm inhabitants the warm security of mutually assured destruction: I won't call code enforcement on that honking noisemaker if they won't do the same on our lovely little decibel producer, Cher.

Although neighbor complaints have never been an issue for us, I can't help but cringe when Cher lets out her alarm cry at 10pm because we have left the room and she is not ready to crawl into her Happy Hut for the night. Not that this happens all of the time, but the added excitement of Ms. Flock Advisor's arrival this weekend seemed to put the little thing on high-alert. When we returned from our weekend away on Sunday night it was after 10, and Cher screamed no less than half a dozen times after the lights were off and her cage covered. Ms. Flock Advisor asked with a tone that suggested her lack of sentiment for the calls of a conure, if she is like this all the time. I said no, but I'm not sure she didn't think I was just trying to protect the little orange bird's reputation.

Ms. Flock Advisor's visit, however, was welcomed by a very snuggly bunny. Kenobi was waiting at the top of the stairs as she came in the door on Friday morning. After a few laps around the apartment together that seemed to wear him out a bit, she picked him up and he looked right at home smashing his face into her sweatshirt and clutching her with his paw. They then shared a box of animal crackers before we hit the road for our weekend in Hartwell, GA.

Ms. Flock Advisor and I wondered out loud just how much that little rabbit brain is capable of remembering of her. I will say that I got to see him do something he hasn't done since she left. She loves to run from one end of the apartment to the other, and Kenobi will follow right on her heels. As I was watching them perform this ritual of fun, I realized that I have not done this with him. I have tried several times in the days since she returned to the west coast to play this game with the bunny, but he has not obliged. It is a little sad to see him just watch me try to initiate the chase, but not pick it up. Then, that game is something special that he and Ms. Flock Advisor can share. He interacts with me in different ways: coming to the sound of the Cheerios box, playing with the granola bar wrappers, or attacking his stuffed animal toys that I challenge him with. Knowing that his little bunny-brain can identify various activities with us as individuals is refreshing. Details are what make living with animals so rewarding and fun.

11 October 2010

The New Sprite

My last post was largely about mimicry in our flock and wild birds, and this week's is a bit of a follow-up to that as the Flock Advisors have noticed Sprite picking up the habits of his much small roommate, Lennon.

Sprite and Lennon are currently shacked up with Ms. Flock Advisor. Their cages have been side-by-side since their move, and that marks a major shift for Sprite since coming to live with us in January. Previously, Sprite's cage was in our bedroom and the other birds, and Kenobi, were located out in the living room. Initially this scenario was our attempt to provide at least somewhat of a quarantine period during Sprite's first several weeks with us. Admittedly though, we got rather attached to Sprite's tendency to whisper to us from his blanket-covered cage in the morning when he detected our first stirrings. He would grind his beak and offer a very muffled "Hi." We would wheel him out to the living room on his perch stand to see and interact with the rest of the flock during the day, but we enjoyed the uniqueness of having Sprite in the bedroom where he could talk to us in the shower and offer his hushed greetings in the morning and evening.

Sprite is now picking up some of the vocalizations, namely whistles, of Lennon and adopting a few of his behaviors. Ms. Flock Advisor has noticed that Sprite now lowers his head dramatically, just as Lennon does, to request a neck scratch. I noticed several times that as we would walk by their cages this weekend both birds would have their heads lowered and the feathers on the back of their neck fluffed up and ready for a good scratch.

Sprite is also becoming rather adventurous in his new quarters. Lennon steps out onto the convenient porch that his open cage door creates and then leaps into the air to fly laps around the room each day without fail. Sprite had only flown a handful of times before rooming with Lennon, and that was usually as a result of being startled. His early flights were always less than graceful, and typically one-way trips with a hike back across the floor to his cage. Following Lennon's lead, though, Sprite took to the air twice on Sunday for a perfect loop around the room with a successful landing back on the top of his cage.His beating wings sound like a Chinook Helicopter, but he moves with incredible grace now. His Spread wings expose the red and blue on their undersides as he swoops past.

He also climbed down from the top of his open cage to go for a walk on his own a couple of times. The first time, I had been in the kitchen preparing some snacks to accompany an afternoon of football. Because Sprite had previously not been housed within eye-shot of the kitchen like the other birds, the goings on there are still new to him. The clanking of metals, running water, microwave beeps, and sizzles all stir his curiosity. I turned from stirring a bowl of seasoned pork to find Sprite waddling around my feet and looking up expectantly at me. Ms. Flock Advisor offered him a piece of Chicago hard roll, and off he went with it, stopping to take a bite here and there, around the room and eventually back to his cage.

Later he got a carrot to snack on.

While Sprite spent the day exploring and following the lead of his Cockatiel counterpart, Lennon was happy just to get a little downtime with Ms. Flock Advisor.

06 October 2010

Flock Behavior

Birds are mimickers and mockers. Mocking birds mimic the other birds in the neighborhood and parrots, some parrots, mimic the sounds of their humans and the microwave timer. I saw a bird on an Attenborough special mimicking other animals in the forest as well as bulldozers, chainsaws, and a camera shutter. The bird brain is largely dedicated to the task of mimicking sound in many species.

But birds are flock animals, and the mimics aren't limited to their noises. Birds shadow the behavior of others in their flock. Watch a group of sparrows bathing, or crows opening a trashed bag of Lays. It is about flock survival as much as anything. Watch a line of pigeons on a telephone wire for a few minutes, and chances are you'll see them eventually all take off together. They didn't necessarily all just happen to decide at the same moment to take off, one took off and the rest followed. If one member of a flock senses danger and lets loose an alarm cry, all the others go into panic mode, though they probably haven't seen what the fuss was all about.

When Cher spots a hawk out the window, she'll scream and usually fly back to her cage or perch. The other birds, whether they are in the same room or not, will start their screaming and evasive maneuvering based solely on the fact that Cher is panicking. Its not always a "run for the hills" kind of thing, though. They will also eat when they see another bird eating, sleep when they see another sleeping, or bathe when they see another splashing around in their water dish.

Yesterday Coconut saw that Cher had decided to take an afternoon bath in her water bowl, and he followed suit. It was the first time I've seen him take a bath. Cher makes ruining her day's water ration by plopping down in it a regular thing, but it was surprising and comical to see Coconut following right along in yet another show of his emerging personality.

What was interesting to watch was the different styles the two birds have when it comes to taking a dip. Cher takes an all-in approach. Her species comes from the Amazon rain forest, and she represents the moisture rich environment well. She plunges her head straight into the water and then flicks it up to let the water run down her back and belly.  Coconut is less inclined to drench himself in this way. He leans forward from the rim of the dish and dips his breast into the water. He'll dip a wing in just a little and flick a few droplets onto his back. He doesn't get near as soaked as Cher does.

Budgies come from drier climes in Australia and are basically food for everything that eats meat. They travel in enormous flocks and feed on or near the ground on grain and seed. The only water they normally come across is a lake shore or a drying puddle. As small food items, they need to get off the ground in an instant when trouble approaches. Coconut gets his bath, but he stays dry enough that he can still fly very well. He shares this bathing trait with Lennon; Cockatiels have a similar living arrangement in Australia.

One of the most fun aspects of having birds is witnessing their flock behavior in action. Because they spend so much time with us, we'll see them mimic what we do as well. If I go into the kitchen for a snack, the birds will hop down to the their dishes for a bite, or fly over to my shoulder to snag a beakfull of whatever I'm enjoying. One of the surest ways to get them to try something new is to eat it myself, and then offer it to them. If I fall asleep one lazy afternoon reading, you can bet the birds will all doze off as well.

I read an article in Bird Talk magazine about flock behavior in pet parrots and how stressed humans in the house can negatively impact the birds. The article suggested that parrots will feed off of your stressed out behavior the same way that they will feed off the fear alerts of others in their flock. "I don't know exactly what it is, but he's scared so something bad is out there." By living in a stressed out home, parrots can adopt a constant sense of uneasiness from their humans.

I love it when our birds act as little mirrors. It is cool to have them interact with us in this unique way.

Kenobi prefers to interact with cereal boxes.