I have cohabitated with parrots since I was eight years old.
My first parrot, a lively green and yellow parakeet I named Perky, quickly matched me word for word as we grew our vocabularies together.
Perky not only figured out how to mimic human speech (far better than I ever learned to speak “parakeet”) but he soon deciphered how to wrap me around his tiny cute pink toes.
My current parrot, a 21-year-old cockatiel named Pearl, has been with me since he was a five-week-old chick. He doesn’t really talk using people words – some cockatiels do but Pearl isn’t one of them – but he sure does communicate!
Here is an example. A few weeks ago Pearl and I were over at my folks’ house. I had also brought along Malti, my South American redfooted tortoise. The three of us were sitting on the floor together. I was scratching Malti’s shell while Pearl sat on my knee and preened.
All of a sudden, Pearl jumped off my knee, sprinted over to Malti, looked over to be sure I was watching him, and pecked at the back of Malti’s shell!
I got the message. He was jealous…..oh so jealous.
While he has never been so overt about displaying his jealousy towards Malti and Bruce, my rescued 3-toed box turtle, as he was that day, I was already well aware of the issue from watching (and listening) to him act out in other ways when the three of us were together at home.
Current research suggests the average parrot is about as smart as the average two-year-old child. Newer research indicates parrots may be even smarter than this, readily exhibiting intelligence levels of four-year-old children.
Thinking back to when I was two to four years old, I have to say I think Pearl is a lot smarter than I was at any of those ages, as well as being a lot clearer about what he is learning and how to use it to his advantage.
But what hasn’t been quite so clear until just this past year is why. Why are parrots, and avians in general, with their pine-nut to walnut-sized brains, so darned smart?
As it turns out, the brains of parrots and the brains of primates are quite similar in some very important ways.
First of all, parrot brains only look smaller than primate brains until you count the number of neurons contained in each. Parrot neurons don’t need as much personal space….so there are more of them packed into a smaller surface area.
Parrots, like primates, have demonstrated competence and mastery of many surprisingly complex tasks requiring coordination of both advanced motor skills and cognitive function. In primates, this is possible because of a connecting structure in the brain called the pontine nuclei. In parrots, the corresponding structure is called the medial spiriform nuclei.
These structures let the areas of the brain that coordinate intellect and movement talk to each other.
I find this type of research both exciting and anti-climactic.
After all, it only takes keeping regular (or even occasional) company with parrots to realize a) they are smart, and b) they are smart in a lot of the same ways I am smart, even if their expression of their smarts looks a bit different than my own.
So to be honest, as I blogged about here recently in regards to recent tortoise research, I’m not always sure why it is necessary to research the crap out of something just to prove to the mind what the gut, heart, spirit, whatever you want to call it, already knows.
It was my former human partner of many years who first introduced me to the concept that human instincts are animal instincts and it forever changed how I experience my interactions with other species, whether they have feathers, shells, fur or none of the above.
I see similarity now where it feels like before I saw differences.
I also see privilege (in my case) and it makes me feel sad.
Reason being, all my life when I’ve felt lonely, which is often, I would instantly feel better and more connected when a flock of birds or even a single bird or two would land nearby. There has always been a sense of kinship, of shared consciousness that life is just what it is for all of us, and it is only togetherness that makes the tough times bearable.
And in my joyful moments, such as when I’ve been walking along the beach, just the sight of feathers has always enhanced my joy.
But I don’t think the sight of me evokes a similar response in the avians of this world….save perhaps for one in particular who happens to be covered in grey and white feathers.
In theory it is possible, however, especially as we now know that bird brains and people brains are so markedly similar in so many of the ways that my particular species attaches particular meaning to.
Birds and parrots (and turtles and tortoises) have had a huge influence over my drive to recover because these animals have helped me make sense of being human in a way my fellow humans usually couldn’t. What does it mean to be alive, to have a big powerful brain I have no idea how to use, to feel so alone even when there is so much evidence I am anything but?
Always, the animals in my life and in the wild lives going on around me have whispered, “Being alive is its own reason. Just live. Take a big deep breath and LIVE.”
With great respect and love,