Stuff of Heart Ache

For the thousands of us who share our daily lives with parrots, we never tire of a parrot’s ability to learn, to communicate and to love.

We strive to give them the best possible nutrition, no easy task, given the fact that so little is known through good solid research about their nutritional needs. We make sure their caging material is safe – some spending in excess of $5,000 on stainless steel cages – their water always fresh, their food organic and nutritional. Great efforts are made to provide them with mental stimulation, often through various training techniques, and a wide variety of toys.

They’re included in family life, joining us at meals, even in our showers, involved in our conversations, and generally, it seems, happily sharing their lives with we strange earth-bound featherless flocks who by comparison, can’t sing or whistle worth a darn.

Each parrot species, has distinct characteristics by which you may safely generalize behaviors. African Greys are standoffish, “bonding” to one person, snubbing the others.

Macaws are majestic, strong, noble creatures.

Conures are loud, bossy, clowns, weighing 60 grams, consider themselves to be THE largest bird no matter what the contrary visual information might tell them. They’re big into denial.

Cockatiels are chatty and endlessly sweet, with only the males having the ability to speak, using “human” language. Far too often, they’re viewed as “garbage birds”. Bird rescues have cages of cockatiels given to them by people surprised that birds “lived so long”, “sang too much”, or “wanted me to pet it all the time”.

In general, parrots are more cat-like than dog-like. In their “dog” moments they pursue their human, simply wanting to be touched and stroked, to be told they’re beautiful, good, smart and best of all, hopefully, receive what bird bird-humans call a “scritch” on the neck. Dense, thick neck feathers are gently moved aside until fingertips reach the softest imaginable skin of the parrot’s neck, gently stroking – a poor replacement for a lifelong mate who would normally provide this preening service.

In their cat-like moments, they call the shots, often turning their head away, ignoring invitations to “come play!’. They move to the other side of the cage, turned backs communicating “go away”.

They hiss, and some, like my African Grey, growl a warning, shockingly realistic in its imitation of a large-cat growl one might expect to hear when strolling the Savannah plain.

There’s often no rhyme or reason to their requests to “leave me alone”. For some, it is simply their bedtime. For others, it may just be an off day. In all cases, the desire to be alone occurs infrequently, attention and affection usually winning out.

Like all creatures, parrots occasionally need to release energy. They rival a dog in boundless enthusiasm for playing “catch” preferring a glue-free empty paper tower roll to a hard ball. And while I’ve had quite a few dogs in my life, I’ve never had a dog that can be directed to throw a ball to a named human. “Throw it to Sarah!”, “Throw it to Daddy!”, “Throw it to Daniel!”. That comes easily to a large parrot.

Another favorite energy-burning activity is “Jungle Screaming”. Usually, in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, they’ll scream practice “warnings” to each other, reminding me of fire drills. It seldom lasts beyond 10-minutes. They often seem to enjoy a little siesta afterwards.

For creatures that will always be wild, never domesticated, living a life that is as far removed from its wild state of being as one can possibly get – few get to eat real live bugs, or spend hours riding the thermals, or hang one-toed from the top of the rainforest canopy screaming at the top of your lungs just because they can – the majority adjust pretty well. They learn our languages, using them in an appropriate manner. Only those who have never lived with a parrot will tell you they “mimic”.

In general, we humans are a terrible replacement for what our parrots would have in the wild – a lifelong mate who speaks their language, who can effectively preen their their feathers through necessity or out of affection, and a kindred spirit to lean against for warmth on a cool winter night.

Most of them adjust pretty well to their earthbound existence.

Those who don’t, suffer.


Large Cockatoos, the Umbrella and Moluccan, seem to suffer the most. Through the years, bird shelters and rescues across the United States have filled to the rafters, overflowing with unwanted, unmanageable Umbrellas (Umbies) and Moluccans (Mollies).

The photo is Major- a Moluccan I recently helped a friend “rehome”. We don’t know how many homes Major had prior being rescued by her.

When my friend found Major, he’d been stuffed in a basement for a number of years, fed a diet of Wal-mart bird seed. Given the way Cockatoos love to receive 100% devotion and companionship, never exhibiting a “cat-like” moment of turning way from any possible interaction, the very worst part for him was the way in which he was ignored day after day, year after year. Over the next year, my friend provided him with little moments of escape from his solitary confinement.

The basement Major lived in wasn’t the usual home, or office, but a veterinarian who unwillingly received Major in trade for the client’s payment. To his credit, he didn’t euthanize Major, although he did drug him in order to reduce the screaming.

As for the client, I expect her problem was unrealistic expectations – both of Major and of the vet. Her requests are probably echoed a hundred times a day across this country:

“Make him stop screaming”.
“Make him stop pulling his feathers out!”.
“Make him stop ripping a hole in his own chest! It’s costing me a fortune!!”

Major has become a feather-picker and a self-mutilator. Bored out of his extremely intelligent and highly sensitive mind, restricted from the one saving grace that could have given meaning to his life – companionship of any creature rather than a cold, damp dark basement – he became bored.

I try not to anthropomorphise, especially with my parrots. It has become clear to me that I will never grasp what is going on in their brain, maybe because they tend to be one or two steps ahead of most humans. We aren’t hard-wired to think the same and in a very real sense, when I apply my human perceptions and features to having any meaning for them, I feel I am somehow short-changing them.

I don’t believe, however, it takes a very large leap of the imagination, nor would it be inappropriate to affix human feelings to Major’s situation. He was lonely enough, and clearly not living anywhere near his capacity or close to “normal”. Self-mutilation at this point surely is a wish to die.

If Major were in the wild, he would be flying high with a huge flock of brother and sister Cockatoos. In the wild, Major and his species would not be killing their mates as they do in captivity. In the wild, there are no reported cases of Cockatoos feather-picking or self-mutilating.

Major is yet another Cockatoo among thousands of others, who are suffering and paying the price.

There are those who have taken on the Umbrella and Moluccan “cause”, like my amazing friend Diane, work tirelessly 24-7 opening up their homes as a haven to those in need.

Unfortunately, there is very little funding available, other than through private resources, for the care and feeding of unwanted parrots. Animal Humane Societies and SPCA’s have far too much cache’ and politicking savvy – years of experience, in fact – with a blinder’s focus on cats and dogs. They’re not about to let their portion become watered down by other concerns. Granted, birds are not an easy creature to care for, nor do they easily transfer from one household to another, but at the rate that “rescues” across this country are filling up, and the dire need for funding which most of them need to provide basic essentials of food and medical care, any little help would be truly appreciated.

Next time you feel generous, or need a worthy cause, please consider finding a local parrot rescuer. The majority of rescuers are non-profit organizations, 501c3, capable of providing a “donation” slip for tax time.

If you don’t have a local parrot rescue, please check out Diane’s website. I’m proud to know this woman.

Major has adjusted very quickly to her, and even though he’s spent years without consistent human companionship and attention, he’s already showing signs of bonding with Diane’s husband Steve. Maybe some day, there will be a special home out there waiting for Major – a place that Diane will teach about the ways of Cockatoos, in order to give Major a better chance of living a happier life.

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