Parrots and Awareness of Death
How do parrots perceive death – their own, their owners', and that of others in their life? I was prompted to think about this by my American friend, Virginia. What she said ties in with similar experiences I have seen in my own flock and with similar situations that others have told me about.
Professor Joanna Burger' sick mother-in-law lived with her some years. Her red-lored Amazon Tico was a great friend of the invalid and would spend hours in her lap or on her chair. When hospital nurses came to deal with a medical crisis, Tico flew at them and had to be removed upstairs. On the night the old lady died, Tico screamed continuously for hours - something he never normally did. He never saw the old lady's body and afterwards, for weeks, searched everywhere for her.
Virginia's husband, Milt, died of a sudden heart attack at night. Next morning the house was filled with more people than her Grey parrot, Chaucer, was used to seeing
Virginia wrote to me: After it was determined, quite utterly, that nothing could be done for Milt, I tried to explain to Chaucer that "Papa is dead. Papa died -- like Zeus" (the cat who died in my lap, with Chaucer watching, some 8 years earlier). I can't recall exactly all that I said, but that was the gist of it -- and I repeated it, with variations, whenever I had a chance. People were nearby while I was talking to Chaucer, and I could hear them saying, in low voices, "Look at how he's watching her. He's listening!
"When it was time for the men from the funeral home to remove Milt's body, I asked them to come through the room where Chaucer could see his lifeless body, lifeless face. I probably would not have thought to do this, except that someone I know once spoke about giving similar instructions that this should be done when he died, so that his birds would know that he had not just voluntarily left them. And I might not have had the courage (is that the word?) to do this, except that with me were two animal-loving friends, one of them a bird person. I told them what I wanted and asked them what they thought; this all in front of the funeral home guy. They said yes, yes, that makes good sense. ... And so they brought Milt's body past, pausing, and I talked to Chaucer and said, again and again: "Oh awful grief. Awful grief." [This phrase of ["Awful grief", Virginia explains, is Chaucer's own transposition of her exclamation "Good grief!" He uses "Awful grief!" for any especially bad incident.] I heard afterward, from people who were witnessing this, that Chaucer "stared intently" at Milt's face -- but I can't say, myself, because I was not monitoring the incident in that objective way.
For hours and hours Chaucer sat in one place; he had no interest in going anywhere, or doing anything, and he said nothing at all , an unprecedented silence. Late in the afternoon, my son Adam arrived and gave me the biggest, warmest hug imaginable, the biggest, warmest hug Chaucer could ever have witnessed and as I said something to Adam like, "Oh, thank you for coming!" I saw Chaucer, watching us, come to life, go over to his snap-apart ring, quickly take it apart, glance at me with an indescribable look (I swear there was purpose there, and understanding, nothing casual about it) and then carry one piece over and put it in his water dish. This is something he does that I have always told him is "soooo cute!" and "makes Mama happy!" I picked up the pieces and put them together and said, "Thank you, thank you for making Mama happy!" I am totally certain that he did this to give me comfort, in his own way.
Sceptics would say this was simply coincidence.
I have observed my own bird's display an attitude to death and grief that I can only describe as showing compassion , an emotion we also show and we find it in our dogs and cats.
When Casper Grey was one year old I took in two rescues, a Timneh and an African Grey, both wild-caught, neither tame and both biting if approached. The African grey was clearly ill. The vet diagnosed Aspergillosus. The bird was terrified of people, growling and hissing so there was no question of attempting treatment. But we decided to let him live - in the aviary in a hidden corner (the million- to- one chance?) In the nine weeks that he survived, he gained weight and grew a tiny bit less terrified of my approach. Casper spent hours sitting beside him on the perch. Was he learning what life in the West African forests had been like? The morning I found Solomon dead, Casper was standing beside him, attempting it would seem, to blow into his mouth with Mirt, the other wild-caught, perching above observing.
Yes, I know these are anecdotes and offer no scientific proof of whether are birds are aware of death.
My final anecdote concerns a practising avian vet. We met on an advanced parrot training course in Florida. He told his fellow students that he had to euthanize a very sick Amazon in the clinic. Next morning when he went to the parrots' cages, another Amazon who had the adjoining cage, called loudly, 'Not me!'
© Dorothy Schwarz