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Bird Brains


Sun, Dec 31st, 2000
Posted in

Monday,December 11, 2000

While some may beg to disagree, I believe most birds are smart, real smart. Far more intelligent, in fact, than science ever gives them credit for. Unlike many ornithologists (bird scientists) who evaluate avian thought processes solely on the basis of brain shape and size, my belief in the mental power of birds is based not just on what is known of their anatomy and behavior or what I have read in books but from personal long-term observations of individual birds as well. I have, after all, lived with one particular bird for well over 30 years.

The bird in question is a Yellow-naped Amazon, a green South American parrot just about the size of a crow. The name Yellow-naped stems from a small, rectangular patch of bright yellow feathers located at the base of the animalís head. Other Amazon parrots including Yellow-headed, Blue-fronted, Red-spectacled, Green-cheeked and so on are often likewise also differentiated by head color. Like virtually all parrots, Amazons feed largely on thick-shelled nuts and seeds, which are opened "nutcracker" fashion between incredibly powerful bills. These highly specialized beaks are typically razor sharp as well; a combination making for excruciatingly painful and profusely bleeding bites tha, believe me, simply cannot be forgotten.

Be that as it may, I first met this particular parrot through my father back in 1966. Although now quite a long time ago, I can still remember aspects of the event vividly; dad entering through the kitchen doorway, a cardboard box nonchalantly tucked under his arm, my motherís inevitable question. Above all else I recall "Mike," the furiously angry bird that emerge dfrom the carton with a hiss, to stalk menacingly across our table.

According to dad, Mike was purchased as a youngster sometime in the late 1940s by a middle-aged couple. Some 20 years or so later the husband died, leaving the bereaved widow behind to look after what had become over time "his" pet bird. Before too long the elderly woman decided parrot care was really not her "cup of tea" and that Mike should go reside somewhere else (hence his trip to my house in a box), as she really didnít like the bird all that much to begin with.

If his actions in my parentís kitchen that first day provided any indication, the parrot certainly was not overly fond of the old lady in return. While obviously more than willing to bite any one of us if pressed, Mike was particular aggressive toward my mother. Any attempt on momís part to approach the kitchen table was immediately countered by an enraged, squawking bird charging in her direction. Suffice it to say, ma steered well clear of "her" table, held at bay by a bird just a fraction of her size.
Trouble is, Mike knew he backed mom down, fully understood he had succeeded in establishing his dominance over yet another human. Now, nearly four decades later, this domination continues, with bird ruthlessly chasing mom whenever possible to do so. Although aggressive behavior to establish hierarchical rank is relatively commonplace among social animals, it is Mikeís capacity to remember things over long periods of time, which I find so astounding. After all mom and Mike, now separated by several hundred miles, see each other only rarely.

Long-term memory aside, Mike has also demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to associate certain actions on his part with a given set of subsequent reactions. All women regardless of age, shape or size, for instance, are relentlessly harassed in a manner reminiscent of his initial attack and continued persecution of my mom. While women invariably unleash Mikeís fury, similar attacks may be launched against virtually anyone regardless of sex at virtually anytime. In either case the result is invariably the same, a rapidly retreating human desperately trying to escape the wrath of a bird.

Mikeís scorn extends to other household pets as well, with dogs, cats and even other birds all fully expected to bow to his will. Cats appear to elicit the most disdain, since few of those residing in this parrotís domain over the years have ever escaped unscathed. As if natural feline curiosity was not already enough to seal their fate, Mikeís perfectly pronounced imitation "meow" guarantees that each cat in their turn will be lured within reach of his paw-crunching beak.

Mikeís imitation of human laughter, on the other hand, can have the same effect on people. The sound of a laughing bird almost hypnotically providing the completely false sense that Mike is actually friendly, despite my repeated warnings to the contrary. I have little reason to doubt that if I didnít intervene, some of these unfortunate souls would have been bitten as well.

I also firmly believe that Mike knows exactly what he is doing, fully realizes that he can lure cats with meows or people with laughter. He certainly has done so on more than one occasion. This obviously constitutes learning, but learning with the power to evaluate possible consequences of his actions, to use tools that have proved successful in the past to meet situations in the present and the future. There is ample evidence that other birds in other places can do so as well. That, however, is a topic that must wait for some other time.

By John Levell

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