I have been fascinated for some time now regarding the extent to which our parrots can read and understand us by observing our body language and facial expressions. I believe that most of us are vastly unaware of the scope of impact that our involuntary body language has on our birds. We have plenty of both scientific and anecdotal evidence on this topic with other animals, but I’ve never seen it extrapolated to our lives with our parrots.
Many of you are familiar with the Clever Hans Phenomenon. For those of you who are not, Hans was a horse who, in the early 1900’s, lived in Berlin with his owner and developed worldwide fame. His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, was a mathematics teacher who began to train Hans to perform mathematical calculations.
After four years of training, Wilhelm von Osten began to give demonstrations. Hans was asked to count, read the clock, identify playing cards, and perform arithmetic. He indicated the correct answer to the problems posed by pawing with his hooves. He was able to give the correct response even when the questioner was not his owner.
At the time, the majority of experts became convinced themselves of Hans’ ability. Eventually however, a biologist and psychologist by the name of Oscar Pfungst was able to prove that Hans had no such ability.
It was found that Hans was unable to deliver the correct answer if the questioner didn’t know the correct answer or if Hans could not see the face of the examiner. As it turned out, Hans was a keen observer of the microscopic facial signals that the person posing the questions was not aware of giving. Reading these, he would give the correct answer when he read a signal that indicated he had or was about to give the correct answer.
The Thieving Monkeys
In a recent newsletter, I mentioned having listened to an NPR Hidden Brain podcast, during which psychologist Laurie Santos was interviewed. She discussed her research with non-human primates, both on the Caribbean Island of Cayo Santiago and in a lab that she built for the purpose at Yale University. This episode was dated October 21 and was titled “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Being Human.”
Her goal in studying non-human primates was to learn more about human behavior. As Santos explains it, the best way to discover information about humans is to do research on non-human animals in order to discover what we have in common and what we don’t.
During one experiment, the researchers had to abandon their efforts after having found that the free-ranging monkeys on the island had stolen all of the fruit that was being used for reinforcement. This caused some consternation because it’s not like these researchers were unaware of their surroundings or “tuned out” in any way.
This then prompted a new line of research aimed at discovering whether the monkeys were actually stealing rationally. They were! When faced with the prospect of stealing from a person who was looking at the fruit and a person who could not see the fruit, they chose to steal from the latter. They were rationally calculating their chances of success.
And Thieving Parrots
This is not news to those of us who have turn around to find that the pen that was there the moment before has now disappeared. We find after a moment of inattention that the “E” letter is now missing from our laptop keyboard. We return after the briefest of moments to discover that every piece of fruit in the bowl now has a bite taken out of it.
We are always astonished at what our birds can accomplish when our backs are turned for what seems like just a quick moment. What I hope to illustrate with these examples is just how carefully our perceptive parrots watch us. They learn far more from us that we might ever imagine.
Many years ago, another behavior consultant related a story. He had a client who claimed that her parrot would eat only organic vegetables. The consultant didn’t believe this and got her to agree to a more controlled “study.”
Her husband prepared two identical bowls of vegetables, one with organic vegetables and the other with vegetables grown through standard commercial means. She then delivered the bowls to her parrot, who ate both without preference. It’s possible that she had been cuing her parrot with her body language to eat the organic vegetables only.
While I hear reports of “picky” parrots from many people, I have never had any problem converting a parrot, new to my home, to a better diet. Partly this is due to an effective technique, but I also believe that it is due to the fact that I simply expect them to eat it. It never occurs to me that they won’t.
Parrots Respond to the Imperceptible
People rarely seek professional help for parrot behavior problems as a first resort. Instead, they talk to friends, to the people at the bird store, and to people on social media. It is only when they have exhausted all of the suggestions, in addition to their own ideas about what might work, that they call me. By this time, they are usually in a state of despair, if not desperation. In short, they are upset.
During our first contact, I am able to reassure them that all is fixable and then go on to explain how that will be accomplished. I can almost feel their relief, despite the technology that separates us.
The odd thing is that, when we have our next contact, a good many of them report that their parrot has displayed greatly improved behavior since our first conversation. This has happened so many times now that I do not think this is a fluke. I believe that the owner’s new state of relief translated itself through microscopic signs to the parrot, who in turn was able to relax a bit more.
This report may sound fanciful and vague to many. It sounds that way to me also when I reread what I have written. However, this has been my experience for decades.
Animals and Humans – Two Different Orientations to Communication
In our communication with non-human animals, we almost exclusively employ spoken words (coupled with touch – an approach that has proven disastrous in many cases.) I suppose the focus on speech is natural, given that we are verbal animals and our relationships with other humans most often depend upon the use of words.
However, if you watch the parrots and other animals in our care, they are often taking cues from the way we signal with our bodies or the expressions on our faces. This focus on watching body language makes sense for them, given that their relationships rely upon the use of unspoken cues and expressions.
When we teach a parrot to perform a behavior, we can’t simply use words. We must rely instead upon some type of physical signal, at least in the beginning. It is my contention that animals and birds seek to first gain information by watching our body language and second from listening to our words.
Tics and Scents
In the book Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, Gretel Ehrlich writes “Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been or how our bank accounts describe us. What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes, but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – we’re finally ourselves.”
Our parrots always know what is “bedrock and current” in us. If your commitment to your parrot is wavering, he will likely know that. If you or someone in your home doesn’t like the bird, he will know that too. If you are afraid of your parrot, he will understand that. If you feel anxiety every time you look at your parrot who chews his feathers, that too will be conveyed.
Historically, as a parrot owning population, we have behaved generally without recognition, regard, or respect for the body language that our parrots employ to communicate with us. Even less attention has been given to what we might communicate ourselves with our bodies. No acknowledgment has been directed toward our imperceptible facial expressions.
Thoughts Create Feelings that Create Expressions
And, in fact, such acknowledgement would be of no use. We can’t control expressions that originate from the fleeting feelings that we experience. However, it is our thoughts that create our emotions. Our emotions then fuel our microscopic tics and scents.
So, this isn’t a typical blog post offering you a list of action steps. Instead, this is a New Year reminder that our own mental and emotional states impact every creature in our homes.
Every new year, I have the same resolution – to get right and be right with myself. If my life is out of balance, to get it back into balance. If a situation is causing me distress, to either leave it or resolve it. If I don’t like an aspect of myself, to find my way to the resources that will work for me to improve the situation. If my habits don’t support my long-term goals, to instill the ones that will.
I wish you all the happiest of holidays!
Hogan, Linda, Metzger, Deena, and Peterson, Brenda, ed. Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Croup, 1998.
Samhita, L., & Gross, H. J. (2013). The “Clever Hans Phenomenon” revisited. Communicative & integrative biology, 6(6), e27122. doi:10.4161/cib.27122
Vedantam, Shankar, Cohen, Rhaina, Boyle, Tara and Schmidt, Jennifer. “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Being Human.” National Public Radio (NPR). Psychologist Laurie Santos’ research with primates. October 21, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/15/770430417/what-monkeys-can-teach-us-about-being-human
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with their parrots. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, subscribe to my newsletter (a different publication from this blog, or purchase my webinars, please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com.