My 21-year-old cockatiel, Pearl, knows what “belly kisses” means.
(Just in case you don’t, it means I want to kiss his soft belly feathers).
Sometimes I want to kiss his belly feathers – it is addictive, trust me – even when he is not in the mood for me to do this.
Often, even after he shows me in no uncertain terms that he is not in the mood, if I then say “belly kisses” again, he will agree to let me kiss his belly feathers anyway.
This makes me very happy. And I think that is why he lets me do it.
Is this remarkable? Is the bond that Pearl and I share unusual in some way or just uniquely close?
I would like to think so.
But science has now confirmed I would probably be wrong.
The journal Current Biology recently published an intriguing study about altruism in parrots.
In the study, two African grey parrots were situated such that one parrot had a bunch of tokens that could be exchanged for food (tasty walnuts) and the other parrot had no tokens. In short order and without prompting, the bird with the tokens began sharing with the bird who had no tokens.
This behavior was so unexpected that some reporters are now calling the parrots “feathered apes.”
Based on how readily my own ape-like species tends to forget basic sharing principles, I’m not convinced this comparison is flattering to the parrots.
But it is incredibly indicative of just how important keeping interspecies company truly is. Because when we do forget – or at least when I personally forget – some of the finer points of life such as compassion and altruism towards others, my animals are there to remind me.
My five and a half year-old redfooted tortoise, Malti, is a perfect example of this.
I realize that to many people she is just a rock with legs – a slow moving, senseless, oblivious eating machine. To me she is the soul of sensitivity.
Here is an example. When she was younger she caught a very nasty bout of tortoise pneumonia and lost her appetite (likely because she couldn’t smell anything). So I started hand feeding her and, well, I just never stopped.
It is adorable. She has learned to climb all the way up onto me to make the treats come faster. She will sit on my feet, sit in my lap, drape her round shelled body over my legs, anything to keep the snacks coming.
Occasionally when I hand her a snack she will accidentally chomp down on the tip of my finger. I say “accidentally” because of how she responds to this.
Even though it really hurts when she does this, I never ever yell at her or withdraw. Rather, I always speak softly and reassure her with head pets or shell scratches that it is not her fault this happened.
I keep offering the treats with my fingers just as before to show her nothing has changed.
But yet something has changed quite noticeably: how she takes the treats from me.
Even if she has been greedily lunging and gobbling them down up to this point, after an accidental bite, she will open her mouth oh-so-gingerly and very carefully and delicately bite down, drawing her head back to make sure she doesn’t nip my finger again.
If she thinks the tidbit I am holding is too small and close to my finger, she will often refuse to try to bite down on it at all. Now this is amazing. Really. You’ll just have to take my word for it, but redfoots quite literally live to eat. So her refusing to take a desirable morsel from my fingers is a big BIG deal.
While there are probably still many researchers and not-researchers who would tell me this is all in my head, I feel in my gut it is not. It is real.
She understands that her bite hurt me and she perceives that I am not someone she wants to hurt. Ergo, she takes it upon herself to course-correct after accidentally biting me by being extra-careful about how she takes treats from my fingers going forward.
Pearl shows similar self-control. Just like he has (and uses) his own internal volume control that ranges from contented beak grinding to frantic shrieks, so too does he have an internal bite strength and pressure gauge he doesn’t hesitate to employ for communication purposes.
There is a huge difference between a grumpy micro-nip to my nose when I’ve tried to kiss his soft, feathery belly one too unacceptably many times and the type of mega-chomp he reliably delivers when he spies anything that looks like a white towel (of the kind the dreaded v.e.t. uses to wrap around his body when she wants to draw blood or give an injection).
He uses his nips as communication tools and does so with great effectiveness. When he bites and hurts me, he knows it. Over the course of our 21 years together to date, the times he has deliberately bitten to hurt have been relatively rare, and only under the most extreme circumstances when he clearly really felt he had no other choice.
I know this because as soon as whatever was scaring/enraging him is gone, his next act is to reach out with his beak and touch me softly or to call for neck feather scratches or to show me in some other signature way I cannot fail to recognize that he knows he hurt me and he loves me oh so very much.
This is why the African grey parrot study didn’t surprise me. The only thing that did surprise me is that the parrots were so willing and even eager to let the human researchers see them in action helping each other.
Interestingly, the same study with the tokens and the walnuts also looked at reciprocity behaviors and altruism in blue-headed macaws and the researchers didn’t get the same results. Since pretty much everything I know about blue-headed macaws comes from watching the movie “Rio,” I have no idea what might account for this.
Perhaps it is just a difference in how each species is wired.
A similar example may be voles. Prairie voles are monogamous for life, with both partners raising the young. Meadow voles, on the other hand, are wildly promiscuous and deeply uninterested in social bonds of any kind, family or otherwise.
I guess my point is, we know so very little about even our own species it just feels arrogant beyond belief that we might pretend to understand why other species do what they do (or don’t) do, research results or no research results.
But what does resonate is this: the researchers responded deeply to the African grey parrots’ displays of altruism and generosity towards one another. Watching another species voluntarily give up some good to help others felt good to them. Reading about it felt good to me.
It inspires me to strive to do more of the same for my own kind and for all kinds. And isn’t that really all that matters?
With great respect and love,