One of my favorite books is called “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”
This book chronicles the tale of a band of wild parrots and their unwitting biographer, a caretaker and one-time street musician and homelesss man named Mark Bittner. Since I too co-habitate with a parrot, albeit a smaller, largely flightless, and undeniably tame one, of course nothing makes me happier than to read stories of other humans and their birdie companions.
But I have to say, in reading Mark’s accounts of the parrot band over time, it shocked me at first how aggressive the parrots could be with one another sometimes. Especially if one got injured, or if another wanted to mate with a bird already paired with a rival suitor….look out. No tea, warm blankets and a pat on the head from this lot!
Mark hypothesized about where the aggression might stem from — especially when by and large the birds behaved in ways that were supportive and loving towards each another. One possibility Mark came up with stemmed from hunger — the birds had to forage for food and as they depleted the food stores in one area, they had to fly on in search of others. So when they got hungrier their stress levels shot up and so did their tendency to attack.
If I am being honest, this phenomenon sounds both plausible and all too familiar.
When we are being bullied from within by our own thoughts, emotions, or judgments, and especially when we feel threatened by our own seeming inability to meet our basic needs, what we can’t contain will quite naturally and readily spill out into the world around us. Whether we are avian, animal, or human, this principle holds true.
I also think it is interesting how we often (whether deliberately or unwittingly) characterize animals and avians as being less intelligent, less emotional, and more barbaric than humans in their interactions with humans and with one another. Whether we use claws or words, jaws or angry glares, the message comes through loud and clear and a wound is no less certain (or, at times, lasting) with one method than another.
Often the real difference lies in the available means of communication each species has available to it – out of all species, we humans have the widest range of personal expression, and thus the most flexibility in how we communicate and which method we decide to choose.
As I read more books about animal behavior (avians and other animals) I am also struck by how there is really quite a thin line separating us from the other species living their lives all around us. That thin line is the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex gives us the ability to moderate our behavior, curb instinctual responses, and access abstract thought processes to come up with new and creative solutions to stressful situations. It also helps us live beyond each unfolding moment into our pasts and our futures – a trait that can be both beneficial or detrimental depending on how we apply it.
Otherwise, we share approximately 99% of our DNA with rhesus monkeys, and percentages are only slightly less jaw-dropping with many other species. New research now weights the burden of proof firmly towards evidence that animals have emotional lives that are every bit as complex as our own – that animals feel afraid, lonely, sad….and that animals can fall in love (as evidenced by barn owls, who lead solitary lives save for their mates and chicks, and will often simply turn their face to the tree and die when their mate passes).
So we have to recognize that when we are being bullied from within, when we feel aggressive, when we are unkind to ourselves, we can predict the outcome as surely as we can expect that an animal who feels threatened will lash out in fear and self-protectiveness, or curl into itself in an equally active display of distrust and resistance. The one difference between animals and humans there is that there is no evidence (thus far at least) that animals will deliberately harm themselves when they are threatened, save out of grief or to protect their young.
This difference is one we can continue to ponder as we deepen understandings gained from studies of both human and animal behavior in how to silence the inner bully without violence towards ourselves or others, while preserving our ability and right to learn, correct our mistakes, and grow.
Today’s Takeaway: This is a field that contains much diversity of opinion (and thus controversy), but that is also exciting because it means there is much to learn! It also means that qualitative observation (what animal behavior pioneer Temple Grandin terms “fieldwork”) is every bit as valuable as quantitative, scientific modeling and data analysis. If you have a pet, what factors in their behavior and responses to life have helped you to better understand and (if necessary) moderate your own? If you don’t have a pet but you enjoy nature, how has observing the natural world allowed you to calm your inner bully and reconnect with your right to learn and grow free from self-intimidation or judgment as you continue forward in your journey?
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Last reviewed: 27 Aug 2012