A Bedtime Story….
I often describe African grey parrots as having the cognitive abilities of a 5 to 6 year old human child, but having the social skills closer to that of a 2 year old. I can point to a number of scientific papers that provide the support for the first claim, but when I’m asked how I can justify the second, I have to fall back on anecdotal evidence comparing my birds with my friends’ toddlers. One particular behavioral setting does, indeed, provide lots of such anecdotes: that of the bedtime struggle.
Every human parent to whom I’ve talked seems to go through the same nighttime difficulties with their young child — generally, a preschooler, and most often a child somewhere between 2 ½-3 ½. The child gets into bed — and then wants another story read, a drink of water, another hug, or fears a monster in the closet. Interestingly, we see very similar behavior patterns in our parrots, who spend the day mostly outside of their cages, but have to be put inside when we leave for the day.
Just like human parents, we have certain set routines that signal the end of the day. We do a final cage cleaning, changing cage liners, making sure that there is fresh food and water, vacuuming the area around the cages, etc.; finally, the main lights in the lab go off while a night light stays on for a brief period to suggest dusk. The birds know these routines as well as we do. But, just like human toddlers, our birds don’t seem to want to accept that these actions indicate that it is time for us to leave.
Alex initially would go through a series of requests: “Want some water!” (even though there was a dish of fresh water a few inches from his beak). “Want tickle!” “Wanna nut”, “Wanna go gym”, “Come here, pay attention!” (This last usually accompanied by outspread wings and what one could only describe as a look of fear at being left alone.) In fact, trying to avoid all these behavior patterns was why we started the now famous good night routine — telling him to be good, that we were going to go eat dinner, that we loved him, that we’d see him tomorrow. He learned these phrases, and duetting them with us seemed to calm him down and reassure him that bedtime (or, to be more precise, cagetime) was a normal part of life.
So far, neither Griffin nor Athena seem to want to take part in much of any good night routine that I have devised. When I try to put Athena back on her cage, she literally tries to wrap herself around my hand like a pretzel. Sometimes she’s so flipped over that I have to place her, back down and feet in the air, on the top of her cage. She even stopped saying her early attempts at “I love you” (I wuv wu) when she realized it was associated with my departure.
And although Griffin was part of the same routine used with Alex when he was alive, Griffin’s gotten into a different one now. He still gives me a good night kiss (a gentle nibble on my nose), then goes back to his cage to eat the last bits of soft-food dinner before it is removed for the evening. He “floofs” and seems totally calm…until I approach the door to the laboratory. Then both he and Athena engage in a combination of parrot shrieks and “Come here”, “Wanna nut”, etc. while I try to slip out. Relenting and going back to them does about as much good as it does with a human toddler — it just encourages more of the same!
Despite the struggle, I take heart in two facts: First, child psychologists argue that these behavior patterns also demonstrate developing cognitive processes — ingenuity in figuring out how to get what is wanted by adapting existent behavior patterns, and maybe even the beginning of some negotiating skills (see, for example, http://drcraigcanapari.com/curtain-calls-limit-setting-and-bedtime-battles-behavioral-sleep-problems-in-kids-part-2/. Second, in the wild, Greys that have been foraging in small groups during the day come together at night in extremely large flocks, sometimes of several hundred birds, probably as protection against predators (Juniper & Parr, 1998) — so our birds are likely just protesting against what seems quite abnormal to them, that is, the departure of individuals whom they treat as flock-mates during the day. (Who knows: Maybe the desire of our human ancestors to group together at night for protection is also the source of toddlers’ behavior?)
Not to worry, however: Both birds do calm down fairly quickly after we depart. We have used an infrared video cam to make sure of that. After they realize that we really are not coming back, they both seem to find comfortable positions on their sleeping perches in their respective cages, and are fairly quiet until the dawn light comes on the next morning.
Juniper, T., & Parr, M. (1998). Parrots: A guide to parrots of the world. New Haven: Yale Unviersity Press.