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Not many of us Parrot carers will have enjoyed the experience of Professor Joanna Burger who, with her husband Michael Gochfield, shares her life with Tiko, a red-lored Amazon who is now over sixty years old.
Joanna says: “Tiko will be around through our retirement. We might've liked to travel in four or five months stints, but Tiko would be heartbroken if we stayed away that long. He isn't a child one raises who then becomes independent. Tiko is part of our family and we have to consider his feelings and what's best for him.”
Origins of the book
Joanna has shared her experience in The Parrot Who Owns Me – The Story of a Relationship first published in 2001. Funny, touching and informative and written in an accessible, limpid style, this book quickly established a reputation as one of most original books ever written about Parrots and birds in general.
Joanna’s interest in birds started young. Her father, a farmer in the Mohawk Valley, New York, began showing her birds’ nests among the vegetable plants. This interest led to plenty of practice with rehabilitating injured birds. “Some survived for release back in the countryside and others didn’t."
It wasn't a huge step for young Joanna to study biology. The route seemed laid out to become an academic but one for whom field work would always be as important as staying in the ivory tower.
As her career progressed from PhD student through to full professor, the necessary books and papers were written along the way. Most were scientific but some were for the general public. With her ornithologist and physician husband, Michael Gochfeld, she wrote Twenty-Five Nature Spectacles in New Jersey.
So why write a book about a pet Parrot? She wanted to reach people who wouln’t read a nature book. Joanna says that “most scientists do a terrible job of explaining what they do.” She believes that for many people urban life has overcome an interest in nature – everything is concrete. “I wanted to bridge the divide. Originally, I wrote about a gull but I never published that one. I still have it somewhere.”
Then an idea came to write about Tiko who’d already been living with her for 16 years. “I started after Christmas meaning to write a short story. The first draft I wrote in a month; I got so interested that I couldn’t stop and it got longer and longer and became a different kind of book.” It became a book that defies categories. In which section of the bookshop would it be shelved? Was it Science or Memoirs or Pets?
There are biographical memoirs about dogs and cats, but not about Parrots which is odd when you come to think about it – Parrots being as clever and winning as they are. Parrot books are generally either about training or husbandry. Most of us who live with Parrots want to understand why our Parrots behave as they do. However, very few sources explain Parrot behaviour, except as it relates to training. And often these books are not accessible if they’re written in technical language, using a lot of scientific terms.
Irene Pepperberg published The Alex Studies in 1999 which gives detailed scientific proof of the African Grey Alex’s cognitive abilities; her work has helped change the way scientists classify birds’ abilities. However, it’s not a book the average reader can read with ease. It is technical and scientific. Pepperberg wrote Alex and Me in 2008, a memoir of her thirty years with him which is meant for the general reader.
Knowing how to train is not exactly the same thing as understanding Parrot behaviour.
To understand Parrot behaviour it helps to study them in the wild and find behaviour that is equivalent or related to what we see in captivity. Animals don’t behave in a vacuum; their behaviour has some relevance to their daily lives and to the factors that have affected their evolution. Behaviour, like morphological features, evolved because it allowed the Parrots to survive and reproduce more than other Parrots without a given behaviour (or degree of that behaviour). Thus, when a Parrot does something in captivity, it has roots in the wild; we only have to find and understand those roots.
Although, Joanna Burger didn’t abandon her scientific training in her descriptions of living with Tiko, she’s used a reader-friendly vocabulary free of scientific jargon. She explained what it’s like to take in a difficult, second hand bird. I formed a picture of the bird as a curmudgeon with clout, a strong-willed, cantankerous character down in the subtropical wilds of central Florida who lorded over a household consisting of two [old] doting Jewish sisters and himself.
After one sister died, her ailing survivor could no longer care for Tiko, who came to live with the daughter in New Jersey who just happened to be Joanna’s next door neighbour. This relationship didn’t work out. Tiko had bitten the daughter’s ear years earlier, and with the best will in the world they couldn’t find a way to co-exist. Tiko stayed cage- bound for six months, screaming at the indignity, until Joanna was allowed to take the crabby bird home.
Can animals feel emotions?
In the late 1800s-early 1900s, anthropomorphism (attributing human emotions to other species) was common----even explicit in stories and studies of animals. Birds and mammals were given human characteristics and names. Think of Kipling’s Jungle Book.
By the 1940s, as behaviourism (or ethology - the science of animal behaviour)) was emerging as a science, the new breed of ethologists, went out of their way to avoid anthropomorphism at all costs
This was because naturalistic science was very descriptive, and seemed "unscientific" to much of the lay public as well as other scientists.
The behaviourists wanted to be more quantitative and experimental, and attributing any feelings to animals went out of style. Animals used in laboratories were never to be given names.
There’s no experiment yet devised to test or show that the feelings of animals are like ours. It has been a ‘respectable’ scientific opinion that animals can’t feel emotion. With them all is instinct and innate behaviour. In everything you wanted to know about birds but were afraid to ask, Stephen Moss wrote. Lots of creatures indulge in what can be described as 'play', 'courtship' or 'aggression', but we cannot suppose that when doing so they feel the same as we do -- or even have the capacity to feel emotion at all.
When Rockefeller University ethologist, Donald Griffin, published The Question of Animal Awareness in 1976, arguing that animals form concepts and have intentions, he was derided by many mainstream scientists steeped in the tradition that animals can’t be self-aware. Pet owners disagreed with the scientists.
The majority of pet owners do not accept the hard line view that animals don’t have emotions. However the last few years have shown scientists coming round to the view that animals do have emotions. Joanna wrote on this question. People familiar with Parrots will understand that it is next to impossible not to develop a sense of what they think and feel. This presents behaviourists (of which I am) with a dilemma. Our training drills into us an aversion to anthropomorphic judgments.
I once considered it the epitome of bad science to attribute human thought, feelings, and language ability to animals. But over the years I have changed my mind. I have come to regard it as at least equally benighted to automatically assume that animals lack these qualities.
I find myself amazed, in fact, that anyone could doubt that the animals closest to us – dogs, cats, horses, Parrots (especially Parrots) – have emotional responses to the things around them, or that anyone could question the proposition that they form ideas about the situations they find themselves in or the people they meet. No one who has lived with a Parrot will for a second doubt that they have thoughts and feelings similar to ours.
However, anthropomorphism can degenerate into cute whimsy like that icky term ‘fids’ or just plain inaccuracies. Joanna never commits either of these errors. Tiko remains a bird.
She writes: Even though Tiko has spent his whole life in captivity, he is not domesticated. His temperament reflects many of the 353 species of Parrots living in the wild, which range in size from the ten centimetres long Pygmy Parrot of New Guinea to the one metre Hyacinth Macaw of Brazil.
Joanna relates Tiko’s actions to that of wild birds even though he is captive bred and tame. I have found this attitude over the years to be of immense value when trying to understand why my birds act as they do. And you can read all about it in part two...watch this space...
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