THE ART OF LOVING A PARROT
Text and photo by Susanna CrombieMango
Why would anybody ever do what I did?
I placed my little parrot in a new home. I have had many pets, but none opened my heart, or made it sing, to the depths that Mango did. It was love at first sight, and it was out of that same love, and considerable agonizing, that I finally let him go.
Mango is an African parrot, a Lesser Jardine with a lifespan of between 30 and 40 years. A little, translucent, green bird with brown, expressive eyes, he was just four months old when he moved in with us seven years ago. I was thrilled and determined to provide this little feathered love-ball of mine the best possible life.
In the beginning either my husband or I would carry him in a scarf around our neck. He loved to nest in cozy, safe places and grew up with close body contact. Compared to many birds, he was easy to handle. Birds are flock animals, and we became his adopted flock. He relied on us for protection and companionship in his new environment. He was sweet, funny, shy and cautious. Luckily, he didn’t chew or scream much. Sometimes Mango would lunge out at strangers if they got too close to him. He needed to feel safe and explore at his own pace, often with our guidance. The first couple of years he went through a nippy stage and was territorial like most birds..
Mango tuned into us and our whereabouts, just as he would in a flock. Like any bird in the wild, he did not want to be left alone. This “tuned in” behavior is exactly what makes an owner feel so connected to a bird. Birds constantly watch you and communicate with you by body language or sound. They are very intelligent, sociable beings. Lots of their time in the wild is spent foraging, eating, loving, and playing. Many of them mate forever, making them capable of long lasting and caring relationships.
In the old days, captive birds were fed seeds and an occasional leaf of lettuce. We now know that such uninformed care caused these birds to die young because of organ failure. I wanted Mango to have a healthy diet, so I studied. Parrots are picky eaters. It is important to teach them healthy eating habits from an early age. I cooked him “bird bread” with up to 25 different ingredients, made sure he got plenty of fruit and vegetables and few seeds. He was passionate about his food like most parrots are, and any food that wasn’t to his liking would be thrown out of his bowl. In spite of all my efforts, he suffered a calcium deficiency. This meant I had to add a drop of calcium to his food every day, and be sure he ate it. I fed him a teaspoon of warmed sweet potato with his calcium every morning. He went to a veterinarian regularly because it is often difficult to observe illness in a bird.
Most of the literature I read suggested clipping some wing feathers to limit a bird’s full flight. They suggested leaving enough for the bird to be able to carry his own weight, making him able to glide to the floor. This is regular maintenance and needs to be done with care to prevent the bird from being injured both during the procedure and afterwards.
There are many reasons for clipping. Parrots investigate everything. They can chew and shred anything from electrical wire to your furniture. Birds cannot comprehend that a window is solid, so there is a risk for devastating, sometimes deadly, crashes. On the other hand, birds are born to fly. Flying is not only exercise, but often provides survival in dangerous situations. As prey animals, birds are subjected to many threats, cats and dogs among them. It is a difficult choice, but many owners choose to take away a bird’s freedom to fly, to protect them from manmade dangers and the human environment. This choice has consequences for the owner, who now has to ‘move’ the bird around to enrich its environment.
Since birds spend busy, exploratory time with their flock, we included Mango in our activities as much as we could. As it turned out it was harder than we thought. He always wanted to be with us. He liked to chew on my computer keyboard, sit on my pots and nest in my sewing materials.. As an alternative I made perching areas around the house for Mango. He had a movable basket, a fenced off spot on the kitchen counter, a shower perch, several cages, and a hanging tree. We had a small carrier to take him outside and we built him an outside cage. We would never leave him unattended. Outside he had to be protected from cats, owls and hawks. Inside he could get down to the floor, so we always kept an eye on him. There were toys, food and water all over the house to occupy him. Since a parrot’s attention span compares to that of a two-year-old child, he needed lots of stimulation. He would focus intently on something, figure out if it was edible, then drop it and move on to something else. Birds demonstrate an urgency or anxiousness in their nature. This makes them lively and fun to be with, but also very demanding. My husband and I were always searching for anything that would make Mango happy.
Cleaning is a big thing when you own birds, since they are extremely messy pets. There were newspapers under most of his play areas, because he pooped every twenty minutes to half an hour. Going on vacation wasn’t easy, since taking care of Mango required a lot of commitment.
I loved this little bird dearly. We bonded in the tenderest way I could have imagined. Telepathically my senses were like a bird’s. It was heaven to hear Mango scream or sing in joy. Knowing his need for interaction, exploration and play, I tried to limit my time away from home, or at least space it into shorter intervals. For years I wondered about getting him a playmate. His many play areas had been explored millions of times. I found myself trying to engage him but having difficulty coming up with enough new mental stimulation. Though he was a quiet bird compared to many others, when he was dissatisfied, he went through periods of making extremely annoying beeps that drove us nuts. Parrots are quite noisy in the wild and in captivity. My research told me that getting another bird might not solve my problem. The two birds could take a dislike to each other, which would mean double the work, noise and poop for me, and he was already a part-time job for me. If I chose a female for him he could end up bonding with her, and seeing me as an intruder. My husband was against getting another bird because of the enormous amount of attention and commitment Mango required. Keeping him happy was becoming more involved and time consuming. It broke our hearts to see him sitting there bored and hearing him call out for attention. We knew he was looking to his flock for support.
I was concerned about who I could will Mango to after my death. The chance of him surviving me was almost certain, but who would ever want him? I didn’t know of anybody who had the desire, the time and the commitment to provide him with the care he really needed. The thought of him spending years in somebody’s home left alone in a cage was unbearable.
After seven years, I began considering a new home for Mango.
Birds are extremely sensitive. They can develop neurotic tendencies or even go insane if their needs are not met. It is not uncommon for parrots in homes with strife, like a divorce, to start plucking their feathers. During the six months it took me to make up my mind to find him a new home, Mango started plucking his feathers in several places. He was stressed and my heart felt like it was breaking.
Mango has been gone for a year now. During the years he was with me, I belonged to an Internet bird group. Through this list I learned of a woman with a small aviary, who was looking for a mate for her eight-year-old female. In his new home he would at least live among other birds, get a mate, have lots of toys and be cared for by experienced people who loved birds. The ideal would have been to see Mango flying free from tree to tree in Africa, but that was not an option. His new home was the next best thing.
I miss him terribly. We lost an amazing family member, who for seven years was the center of attention in our home. In spite of all our efforts, there was just no way we could ever provide him with enough stimulation, the flock connectedness day and night, the play, love and interaction he so craved, and that was in the long run too hard to bear, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Now he is tuned into and connected to another little being, his new girlfriend. It is my hope that with time, Mango will lovingly nudge his beak against hers, as he used to do to my cheek. I can just imagine him nodding his head in acknowledgement to my final words: Birds are free spirited and really don’t belong in any kind of cages.Susanna Crombie, an art therapist, lives in Cerrillos.
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