How I Slid Into Parrots

How did you get so involved with parrots? I'm often asked. The answer's bittersweet. My deep involvement with parrots came through Artha, my red-tailed Grey, who was one-year-old when Zoe, my youngest daughter, died at twenty-seven. Artha helped me overcome overwhelming grief with what I can only describe as empathy. Her gentle presence aided my recovery. Helping unwanted parrots became my thanks; learning about different aspects of aviculture fascinated me.

We've always kept pets. Dogs, cats, horses, ponies, rabbits  and goats. Ten years ago, Wal, my journalist husband was already retired, I was teaching and writing part-time. The kids having flown the nest, I favoured a new challenge. Why not a parrot?  I knew Barrett Watson. In Newmarket, where he runs a superb stable of show horses; he also breeds parrots: macaws, cockatoos, and red-tailed Greys. Barrett's advice to a not-so-young couple seeking their first bird was that a red-tailed Grey would be the most suitable. When properly kept and trained, they will be quiet, clever and affectionate.

It was decided. The not-yet-laid egg was reserved. Once hatched, Barrett encouraged me to visit the baby bird several times during its weaning and early education. Out of the two grey babies in the nursery I chose the one that came forward. "Probably a cock," said Barrett. We brought home the weaned, fledged and well-socialized baby who already knew the step up command and had been used to wearing a harness. I can't stress too strongly if you're new to parrots, find a healthy, well socialized baby from a reputable breeder whose babies are already trained to become pets.
Arthur settled down fast but seemed to perch like a hen. A DNA test confirmed my hunch and Arthur became Artha.  She was an enthusiastic talker who'd insist when asked, "How does the doggy go?" in replying "Meow". She'd transpose the question 'What's the meaning of life?' into 'What's the meaning of parrot?' And would answer her own question, 'I won't tell you.'

The following year, my youngest daughter came home very ill. Zoe suffered from bipolar affective disorder.  After five months of numbing depression, she could bear the pain no longer and killed herself.

Next morning, the young parrot kept her head under her wing for four hours, refusing to leave her cage. Was she sensitive to the atmosphere of shock and sorrow in the household?  I believe that she was. She became my constant companion; she displayed what I think of as empathy. Joanna Burger,  the  American ornithologist,  author of The Parrot That Owns Me, has described similar behaviour from Tiko, her Amazon, when she lay fevered in bed for six weeks. Artha spent long hours with her head tucked under my chin. I took her everywhere, even horse riding on the pommel of the saddle.

A year later I decided she needed an avian companion. Since she'd likely outlive me, when she went to a new home she'd not go alone. Casper, red tailed Grey came from Barrett's establishment. He was so young that his red tail feathers curled upwards like a duck's. Artha never displayed jealousy towards the newcomer; she and I had both fallen in love with Casper at first sight. These Greys stimulated my interest in parrots. That spring, I built them an aviary which gave me the space to take in rescued and rehomed parrots and parakeets.

Having taught my kids, other peoples' kids, adults, dogs and horses for most of my adult life, I wanted to teach my pet parrots how to live comfortably with us indoors. Books helped, particularly Rosemary Low's. You can take courses on line in bird behaviour.  Susan Friedman's course Living and Learning with Parrots (LLP) enabled me to understand the principles behind the science of behaviour and its application to companion parrots. Having done LLP, I was eligible to study bird training with the renowned trainer Steve Martin at his Natural Encounters Incorporated ranch in Florida. All these trainers teach and practise methods of positive reinforcement.  I was able to use positive reinforcement techniques with the 3 rehomed Timnehs and 4 Amazons who bit and could not be handled. They learned how to step up onto a stick and stopped lunging to bite.

So a hobby turned into a passion and an avocation. I find it hard NOT to talk about parrots when I teach Creative Writing to adults in evening class.

Can parrots show empathy? – I believe so. What do you think? [ENDS]
Dorothy Schwarz -

The Parrot who Owns Me - Joanna Burger (Sidgwick & Jackson)

Grey Parrots as Pets: Some Guidelines for Beginners –Dorothy Schwarz (The Parrot Society. UK)