Parrots live in flocks—sometimes of several hundred birds, sometimes far fewer. As a prey animal, living in a flock provides protection. Partly, it is simply a matter of numbers—that is, the chance that any one bird has of being taken by a predator. It is also the case that one parrot in the wild is literally a dead bird—it cannot forage and look for predators simultaneously. Usually, one member of a flock acts as a sentinel while the others forage, and then they trade places. In nature, before mating, parrots have ‘buddies’, usually of the same sex, sometimes siblings, with whom they forage and engage in allopreening. The extent to which these non-breeding associations continue after birds form pair-bonds is unclear. So what is the importance of such behavior for a parrot in someone’s home?
Most parrots will try to adopt their human family as their flock, and that is why I tell people who have extremely busy lives, who are rarely home, that parrot ownership isn’t always a good idea. The analogy I give them is to think about putting an intelligent 5-yr-old child alone in a playpen for 8-10 hrs/day with a few snacks and some toys…it would be totally unacceptable. Many people then tell me that they will simply buy two parrots to keep each other company…which brings me to the topic of this entry…I then ask, “How close are you now to your college freshman roommate, a person who was picked for you?” And when someone says that the answer is to buy two birds from the same clutch, birds that are already familiar with one another, I ask “How happy would you be to share a house with one of your siblings in your face 24/7, 365?
I do know of many cases where parrots (of either the same or different species) have become good friends—they preen one another, they share food, they actively choose to be with one another. The opposite can also be true, however—two birds that truly don’t want to be near each other at all. The problem for human parrot owners is that we don’t know what is going to happen!
“The Best of Frenemies”
From my own experience, my Greys tend to be “frenemies”…they tolerate each other, but are hardly buddies. Alex didn’t much like Griffin from the start—the first time we introduced them, when Griffin was only a few weeks old and we thought that maybe Griffin would engender some parental behavior, Alex went for the jugular (literally)…we were quick to separate them. Over the years, Alex mercilessly dominated Griffin, constantly telling him to “Talk clearly!” or “Say better!”. If we asked Griffin to label a color, Alex would butt in and ask “What shape?” If Griffin didn’t answer a question immediately, Alex would answer and then demand a nut. They both completely ignored Kyaaro, who was perfectly ok with that arrangement. Kyaaro was ADHD, really was not doing well as a research bird, and we eventually arranged for him to live with a friend who already had two females Greys. (He is still there and seems quite content.)
When we moved the lab from Arizona to MIT, where Arthur was already in residence, the dynamics changed a bit. Although Griffin and Alex never began to like each other, they seemed to bond a bit over their mutual dislike of Arthur, whom they considered an interloper—a kind of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” attitude. Interestingly, after Alex passed away, Griffin seemed quite depressed for months—it was very difficult to get him to do any research, or even talk. Arthur, in contrast, seemed to perk up a bit, and tried—totally unsuccessfully—to challenge Griffin for the dominant position.
When Arthur passed away, Griffin really seemed at a loss…he may not have liked Arthur very much, but now there was no feathered flock, only humans. Thus we had a lot of hope when we brought Athena into the lab. She was four months old and had been interacting a lot with the other baby Greys with whom she had been living. Athena definitely wanted to be with Griffin—she’d present her head for preening, she’d try to get as close to him as possible. He tolerated her, but mostly like a teenage boy whose mom had just brought home a new baby. If she got too close, Griffin would—very gently—whack her beak to push her away. At first, they seemed to want to share a food bowl when eating their cooked grains, but soon it became clear that Griffin was not happy with the arrangement. We then tried placing their bowls next to one another, which worked for a few months…Until we realized that Athena would eat for a few minutes, then drive Griffin off of his bowl. He’d move to hers. After another few minutes, she’d repeat the maneuver. Again Griff would accommodate her. And again and again she’d keep moving him around. After a few months, he refused to move, and that was the end of their sharing.
It’s very clear that the two of them now have figured out some kind of détente or maybe a frenemies situation. As long as they aren’t in beak range, they are very happy to sit on adjacent perches, preening themselves rather than each other. If one of them is removed from the lab for whatever reason, the other is visibly upset and calls. Their cages are close but not touching, and they spend some time, but not a lot, near each other. Maybe the fact that there is no male-male competition for dominance helps. I am not sure. But recently, Griffin seems to have started a bit of teasing. Last week, he picked up a piece of pasta from his bowl, and deliberately walked over to the edge of his cage that is nearest to Athena’s; to us it looked as though he wanted to give it to her. She looked up from her food bowl and quickly came over, reaching out to him—and then he deliberately ate the pasta while she watched!
My basic point is that one can never know what kind of dynamics will occur among or between parrots in a home. One cannot guarantee that any two parrots—much like any two randomly paired humans—will tolerate one another in close quarters, much less become good friends. We do, however, need to accommodate, in some way, our birds’ need for companionship, whether human or feathered, and thus think seriously about our choices with respect to pet ownership.