Q: My bird cries whenever he doesn’t get what he wants, and I feel so guilty that it’s driving me crazy. Why is he so upset? I am typing on my laptop right now, and he is crying, even though I am in the same room. Why is he so sad? Is there anything I can do?
A: You may think you know what your bird is trying to tell you but don’t let these superior mimics trick you. When people want to understand what their pets are doing, many interpret an animal’s behavior in terms of people language, because that is what we understand best. An example of this is the common assumption that a screaming parrot is shrieking because it is angry.
Such an assumption can lead people to believe they understand the situation and can therefore change it. For example, if one supposes that a parrot screams because it is angry, then it’s the logical conclusion that if one makes a bird happy, it won’t scream. As a result, owners implement changes they assume will alleviate the situation, such as placating the “angry” bird with attention and/or food to quiet it.
This basic assumption is fallacious because parrots often scream just for the joy of being alive. By rewarding a noisy bird with attention, a person can turn a normal situation (all parrots can be loud at times) into an abnormal one by teaching the parrot to scream whenever it wants attention.
Another way to cause interpretive problems is to forget a parrot’s potential to mimic noises heard in the human environment. A favorite avian medicine example is the loving owner who rushes a parrot to the veterinarian because it is coughing. Birds lack a diaphragm that functions in respiration, so parrots are physically unable to cough; however, they certainly learn to mimic the sound when a human flock member has a chest cold!
From my experience, the most problematic situations arise when humans interpret a parrot’s vocalizations in terms of a sound to which people attach negative connotations. To describe your parrot’s noise as “crying,” you have inadvertently attached reams of troublesome baggage. Children cry when they are sad, injured or in pain – so this must be the case when a parrot “cries,” right? No, in reality, this is rarely the case.
This situation was obvious with a client I worked with many years ago.
He had a 5-month-old green-winged macaw that he believed did not like to be petted. The owner knew this, he said, because the macaw “cried” when he attempted to stroke it. Because my experience with macaws (especially youngsters) had been quite the opposite, I was perplexed by the situation and asked to meet the bird. Watching the macaw, I thought its body language indicated it was begging for physical affection. “Please,” I said. “Trust me on this. Pet the poor bird!” So he did, and was thrilled and enchanted when the young macaw, finally fulfilled, melted blissfully under his hands.
The owner’s incorrect interpretation of this sound blocked healthy interaction between him and the bird. Once that obstacle was removed, their relationship blossomed.
Another result of the use of a negative word such as “crying” is the guilt that humans feel in response. This is an understandable reaction, but not one that will help your relationship with your bird. Odds are good that you respond to this guilt by paying attention to your bird, which encourages the bird to “cry” more. You are rewarding the behavior, so the behavior will continue. Frequently, guilt morphs into irritation as the bird’s sounds make you feel worse and worse and less likely to enjoy your bird’s company.
Redirect Bird Noises
Instead of feeling guilty about being “mean” to your “crying” friend, focus on teaching your bird to make a sound that you enjoy. Then, when it makes this sound, lavishly reward and praise your bird with attention. Teach him to whistle or whisper. This will accomplish two healthy things: First, it will give your parrot a pleasing way to earn the attention it craves. Second, it will remove the guilt you are feeling and enable you to start enjoying interacting with your bird again.
When listening to the myriad of sounds your bird makes, resist the impulse to anthropomorphize bird noises. Yes, many parrots can sound like humans. Nevertheless, trying to understand them in that context can lead to problems. Remember how talented our parrots are at mimicry as well as their extraordinary ability to yank our chain. They crave our attention, and are brilliant at reading our responses to their antics.