Imperceptible Human Speak: Is This Your Problem?

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.

Clever Hans

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.

Wilhelm Von Osten and Hans (public domain)

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.  

Navidad with the Poor Dog’s Bone

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.

Picky Parrots

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!

References:

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 biology6(6), e27122. doi:10.4161/cib.27122

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3921203

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.

 

Reading Parrot Body Language: An Essential Skill

SONY DSC

Why is it so important to be able to read your parrot’s body language? Because a finely honed ability to read body language is necessary to a relationship that works. Body language is the only way your bird has to communicate with you. You can’t just blunder along as you live with your parrots, not understanding what they are trying to tell you. If you do choose that route, you will be one of those people who post pictures of their most recent bites on Facebook.

A Complicated Art

Reading body language is an art, and is especially complicated with parrots.  Dogs may be different breeds, but they are all the same species.  This means that, as a veterinary technician, I don’t have much trouble understanding when a dog is friendly or thinking about biting me. The signs will be basically the same, whether a Chow or a Chihuahua stands before me.

Parrots, however, are all different species and come from many different regions of the world.  Moreover, they live differently, in terms of how they flock.  This impacts the way they communicate.  New World parrots that derive from the Americas, tend to have more overt, obvious body language.  Consider the typical Amazon who warns that a bite may be coming by fanning his tail, raising the feathers just slightly on top of his head and pinning his eyes. That body language is hard to miss.

These parrots often live in smaller family groups in mixed-species flocks. This overt body language they have evolved makes sense then. If a group of Orange-winged Amazons shares a hectare of land with a family group of Blue-headed Pionus, peace will depend upon mutual understanding.  Contrast this example with that of the African Grey. Aggressive grey

Generally speaking, these birds live in very large single-species flocks, even when breeding. Their body language tends to be much more subtle, which makes sense given how closely they flock together. Warning signs from an African grey may be only the look in his eye and slightly raised feathers across the shoulders and the back of the neck.

 The Value of the Talent

Please don’t come away with the idea that the only purpose of reading body language is the avoidance of bites. That is important, but reading body language accurately will not only allow you to avoid many other problems, it will improve the quality of your relationship with your bird. Let’s examine some of the benefits. Reading body language correctly can help you:

  • Know when a parrot is receptive to begin a training session.
  • Know when your parrot is showing signs of illness.
  • Identify the environmental conditions that help to relax your parrot.
  • Avoid the development of a biting problem.
  • Develop a relationship of mutual trust.
  • Identify when a parrot is too hot or too cold.
  • Recognize a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Avoid the development of a pair bond.
  • Prevent phobic or severely fearful behavior from ever developing.
  • Know when your parrot is about to have a dropping.
  • Identify problems related to a lack of compliance before the behavior really becomes a problem.

A Dearth of Resources

   I twice went through a fairly exhaustive search of Google Images, hopeful to fill this post chalk full of body language examples. I found not much worth including. Perhaps cataloging body language in parrots is such a daunting task that we have made little progress to date, in terms of developing resources for caregivers. After all, it takes an expert in reading body language who is also an accomplished photographer and can set up an environment correctly in order to elicit the desired photographic image.

Never mind.  I will describe to you what I know for sure and over time we will begin to build a collective understanding.

Simple and Positive Signals

    There are some simple, easy-to-read, examples of body language that might be a good place to start. I’m sure you have already observed them.  Have you seen your parrot wag his tail from side to side?  This has been described as a “happiness behavior,” a greeting, and a sign that the parrot is ready to go on to the next activity. No matter the exact meaning, it is believed to be a sign of well-being.

Another greeting is reflected when a parrot stretches out one wing and one leg on the same side. That is a sign of feeling good as well. Others will raise their shoulders just slightly and then bring them down again.  This too serves as a greeting and is a sign of well-being.

The Basics of Reading Body Language

    Let’s discuss the different components of body language. The signs observed must all be taken into account together when attempting to understand your parrot. These are the things I look for:

  • The look in the eyes. Parrots have very expressive faces, much like people. If you focus on the look in your parrot’s eyes, you will get important clues as to what is going on with him.  Observe and use your intuition and common sense.
  • Feather position is a very important clue. A scared parrot will have all feathers slicked down tightly against the body. A relaxed parrot will have a bit of air trapped in those feathers on the torso. A fanned tail can be a distinct warning. A parrot with chest feathers very fluffed may be either too cold or sick. A cockatoo with crest feathers raised is either excited or considering an aggressive move. A cockatoo whose facial feathers have moved forward to partially cover his beak is relaxing.
  • Beak movement is harder to read and understand. However, if a parrot is approaching one of your body parts with his beak open and neck extended, it is best to remove that body part until you can better assess his intentions. A larger cockatoo who clacks his upper and lower beak together quickly and repetitively, is either thinking of you with an inappropriate level of love or is thinking about causing you harm.
  • Stance and movement are major clues that parrots offer to help us understand what is going on with them. If a parrot is leaning away or moving away from you, that is a sure sign that you had better stop and rethink the interaction you were intending to have. That is a clear indication of a desire to avoid contact and must be respected.
  • Skin color can be another indicator of heightened arousal. Macaws are a good example of this, in that when aroused their facial skin may turn pink or red. While this is not usually an indicator intended aggression, it certainly does indicate heightened arousal. I would recommend caution in interacting with any parrot in such a state.

All of these indicators must be taken into account when reading body language. We must also take into account the environmental triggers present. Body language signals in one context might mean something different in another.

For example, my Moluccan Cockatoo will clack his beak together when interacting with me because he loves me a little too much. He had a pair bond with his first owner and would like to recreate that with me. However, when my friend Chris comes over, he also clacks his beak, but with a different body posture and intensity of facial expression.  He intends her bodily harm.

Simple Tips

   While parrot body language may be complex, the ability to read it is just a matter of developing further the skills that we already have – the ability to focus, observe carefully, analyze and use common sense.  We can all learn to read body language well and we must. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Focus well, ignoring nearby distractions.
  • Closely observe your parrot and ask yourself: “What is he trying to tell me?”
  • Be open-minded. It’s easy to assume that you know what a behavior means. However, body language can be confusing. For example, we have all seen parrots lean forward and flutter their wings. Most folks think this means that the parrot wants to go somewhere else. I think this stems from the fact that for so long we have cared for parrots with clipped wings. However, fully flighted parrots will display the same behavior, without taking off in flight.
  • Set your own agenda aside. We must take our cues from the parrot. If you read body language that indicates your parrot does not want to interact with you at that time, honor that. Stop and rethink things. That might be the time to decide that additional training is needed.

Summary

    Your bird will develop a great deal more trust in you if you pay attention to what he is trying to tell you and honor that. Read all the signs together and take into account the environment in which the body language is being offered. Consider all possible meanings.

Always work hard not to scare your parrot or insist in having your own way. In the beginning, simply try to ready body language for its most practical applications.  Try not to get bitten. Be emotionally and intellectually present when interacting with your parrot.

I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say something very profound.  “If your parrot is aware of you, you must be aware of your parrot.” Parrots are always amazingly aware of us.  We owe it to them to be amazingly aware of them. Beyond that, we owe it to them to honor what they tell us.