Parrots and the Need for Nature

Occasionally, I get myself into trouble with my mouth. That was the case about two decades ago when I responded to a post on a social forum.

The speaker had said, “I find my parrots eminently well-suited to my living room.”

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

I found this statement offensive and commented that I thought it smacked of arrogance. This brought down upon my head a hail of criticism, as you might imagine. One reader asked: “Why do you always have to be such a b*tch?”

Well, I’m not, actually. But I am a passionate advocate for the welfare of companion parrots, and as such, I do not hesitate to choose directness if that is what is required to open eyes and ears. I stand by my comment.

To this day, I still think that no one at the time really grasped why I found this statement so disrespectful to parrots as a whole. I was thinking, “How can any creature only one or two generations out of the wild be well-suited to your living room?”  It sounded like she was talking about a new lamp, for God’s sake, not an intelligent, sentient creature.

The possible repercussions of such a philosophy were what specifically troubled me. If we believe this, even a little bit, wouldn’t this let us off the hook in terms of working really hard to discover the circumstances in captivity that ensure the very best physical, psychological, and emotional health for our birds? If they are well-suited to our living rooms, then why do any more than make sure that the color of the cage matches the wallpaper, especially if it causes us inconvenience?

I have said before that I think some of our thinking when it comes to caring for parrots is pretty messed up. I typically cite as evidence for this my observations about the squirrely diet and care choices provided so often to companion parrots that can only stem from some deep-seated, unrecognized guilt at keeping a flighted spirit in a cage. We tend to focus so much on making them happy, as opposed to making them healthy.

Accompanying this concern is an ongoing nagging suspicion that we aren’t doing enough to ensure quality of life for companion parrots, simply due to lack of substantiated evidence about their true needs.

Enter the research that has been done by psychologist  Ming Kuo. She has studied the effects of nature on zoo animals, laboratory animals, and humans for the past 30 years. I became aware of her research when a friend sent me a link to a podcast Our Better Nature: How the Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life.  This is from the NPR series “The Hidden Brain” and was posted on September 10, 2018.

Kuo cites some convincing evidence about the many health benefits that derive from time in green spaces – tree-lined streets, gardens, parks, and forested or agricultural places. Consistently, research has proven that “the less green a person’s surroundings, the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality.”

One “study of over 345,000 people living in greener and less green residential surroundings revealed large differences in the prevalence of disease; even after controlling for socioeconomic status, prevalence for 11 major categories of disease was at least 20% higher among the individuals living in less green surroundings.”

She explores some of the many aspects of nature that may create this strong link between better overall health and time spent in nature.

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Many plants give off compounds called phytoncides, antimicrobial compounds that reduce blood pressure and boost immune function. Areas of forest, as well as those near moving water, have higher concentrations of negative air ions, which reduce depression and anxiety. Even the sights and sounds of nature have important psychological benefits. Walks in forested areas have been proven to cause a reduction of inflammatory cytokines, which have been implicated in cardiovascular disease, among other disease processes. The proven links between time spent in green places and improved health are too many to list here.

Ming Kuo is not alone in her research focus.  I have listed three other references at the end of this blog, which all corroborate her findings. I listed three because there were so many that were similar that listing them all seemed redundant.

Kuo explains the ramifications of the habitat selection theory. Specifically, “we are wired for whatever habitat we evolved in.” She includes a quote from Edward O. Wilson: “Organisms, when housed in unfit habitats, undergo social, psychological, and physical breakdown.” She asserts that “we are seeing this in people.” In support, she discusses in the podcast the research that proves that crime and other forms of social dysfunction increase in proportion to a lack of greenery in living areas.

Photo by Ronald Cuyan on UnsplashAre we seeing this in companion parrots?  Is the fact that more parrots are dying of atherosclerosis a reflection of their lack of exposure to the outdoors, as well as poor diet?

Could living constantly indoors without access to nature be an important factor in the development of feather destructive behavior?

Would time spent in nature help to avoid the development of the stereotypical behaviors some parrots display? These specifically have been cited as evidence of “mental illness” in parrots.

And, what about the unexplained, abnormally high levels of aggression that occasional parrots develop? Could this too be a sign of some deeply-rooted frustration at always being surrounded by four walls? Can parrots grow “stir-crazy?”

I believe so; however, I can offer no proof. We have, as a population of thinkers and lovers of parrots, completely ignored any such links. We apparently have given no thought at all, when it comes to research, to the benefits to parrots of time spent outdoors, other than to explore those of exposure to natural sunlight.

I own a number of veterinary texts, and not one of them explores a possible link between exposure to the outdoors and psychological and physical health in parrots. I couldn’t find even a brief suggestion that this might be a valuable subject for exploration. Even Holistic Care for Birds: A Manual of Wellness and Healing by David McCluggage, DVM ignores this obvious link, stopping short at a suggestion to put houseplants around the bird’s cage to ensure a greater sense of safety.

This is a profoundly saddening omission. Research must be done in this area. Until we have corroborating evidence of the benefits to parrots of time spent in nature, I would call on us all to rethink our approach to keeping companion parrots indoors constantly, without even occasional exposure to the outdoors.

I will always believe that there is no substitute for an outdoor aviary that allows for more freedom of movement than the standard bird cage. However, I do acknowledge that putting up such an enclosure is not possible for everyone at certain times of their lives. Should this be the case for you, I would encourage you to explore other options and to keep this goal on your future list of priorities.kaitlin-dowis-506598-unsplash

Might it be possible to screen in a deck or porch? Can you put your parrot into a carrier and go for a walk or to the park? Could you take your parrot camping safely?

Non-toxic plants around the cage aren’t a bad idea. Perhaps even bringing in natural branches from safe woods for chewing could help. Would a fountain in the room provide a calming influence? Sounds of nature have proven benefits to people.

The World Parrot Trust has for sale some DVDs that show the activities of parrots in the wild. My own birds enjoy watching these. Would even a mural of nature or certain wallpaper designs have a positive impact? We can’t know, but we could make a commitment to experiment and share information with each other.

Given the overwhelming evidence of the many human health benefits, both physical and psychological, that derive from exposure to green spaces, we cannot possibly continue to wear blinders when it comes to our companion parrots. We have been out of the wild for centuries. They have only been out of the wild for decades, and many of the birds still in breeding situations were wild-caught. This means that your parrots have very keen ties to the natural world that you cannot ignore.

We all love our parrots. roman-kraft-421410-unsplashBut, love is not enough. Let’s channel that love into more research about the conditions they need to live problem-free in our environments. And, until we have those answers, let’s use the common sense that we have to make the changes we can to allow them to maintain that vital link of theirs to the natural world.

It is our duty and such effort will only benefit us in the long run.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Roberto Nickson on Unsplash.com.

References:

Hofmann, Mathias et al. “Contact to Nature Benefits Health: Mixed Effectiveness of Different Mechanisms.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15.1 (2018): 31. PMC. Web. 24 Sept. 2018.wild world.

Mercola, Joseph. 2018. “Massive Study Reveals Exposure to Nature Has Significant Health Benefits.” https://www.organicconsumers.org/news/massive-study-reveals-exposure-nature-has-significant-health-benefits.

Ming, Kuo. 2015. ” How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway.” Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 6, Article 1093 (August). https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01093.

NPR: Hidden Brain Series (2018). [podcast] Our Better Nature: How The Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life. Available at: https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510308/hidden-brain [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].

Pederson, Tracy. n.d. “Nature Exposure Tied to Wide Range of Health Benefits.” https://psychcentral.com/news/2018/07/07/nature-exposure-tied-to-wide-range-of-health-benefits/136811.html.