DOT Schwarz uses some bird-taming knowledge on her bird-fearing friends
YOU might have had an experience similar to this one. Our friend Jay Griffiths is a writer. She was visiting us after a sojourn in some exotic, far-off places including jungles, deserts and mountains. Perdy, the lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo that was just one year old at the time, flew enthusiastically into the sitting room and landed on Jay’s lap. She jumped up, screaming, and rushed from the room. I followed, “Surely you’ve seen parrots in the wild?” I asked.
“That’s quite different. They’re not flapping around indoors,” Jay said. She couldn’t be coaxed back to the sitting room until Perdy was shut into the conservatory with the two African greys.
Mirt, one of my rescue parrots, was a wild-caught Timneh hen of unknown age. Humans terrified her, in much the same way that our writer friend was terrified of birds.
“You’ll never get that bird on to a human hand,” one expert told me. Well, experts, as we all know, can get it wrong.
It took almost two years, with help from the online course Living and Learning with Parrots (LLP), but Mirt did become desensitised to the human hand. Eventually, she would step up for any calm person. Why couldn’t the reverse procedure work – desensitising humans to birds? Jay declined to play guinea pig – anyway, she was off to somewhere exotic.
I told this story at a party. Our vet’s wife, Birgit, said that she’d never go near a bird – they scared her. After a couple of glasses of our host’s excellent wine, I was feeling supremely self-confident. “I’ll bet you two bottles of vintage wine that I can desensitise you to a parrot,” I said. The bet was placed. We had no referee, but digital photos would be accepted as proof.
Desensitising Mirt had taken 20 months – our time-slot comprised one morning visit. The key to success lay in the set-up: three parrots were free in the conservatory. Birgit and I were sitting in the room beyond, with the birds visible through a plate-glass window and a glass door.
Birgit explained how her fear of birds went back to childhood. Flapping wings bothered her. Of course she’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s thiller The Birds, in which a plague of crows terrorises a small town. “Birds can bite,” she said.
We continued chatting. The proximity of the three birds next door started to worry her less. I could see her relaxing. Casually, I suggested we carried on the conversation next door. Reluctantly, she agreed. I made sure we did not take coffee cups and cookies within range of eager beaks. As we sat on chairs with no treats in our hands, the birds, which had already breakfasted, perched on the ropes above our heads, ignoring us.
Birgit looked up at Artha, perched a few feet above her – the grey parrot was quivering.
“Why’s she doing that?”
“I dunno,” I answered. “I can guess: maybe she’s sensing a negative emotion coming from you. So this made her consider if you’re frightened, maybe there’s something she should be frightened of, too.”
Animal trainers name a certain response the “light bulb moment” – the moment animals realise what behaviour is required. The same phenomenon can happen with people.
“Eureka, I’ve got it,” we yell. Birgit suddenly saw that she was contributing to Artha’s discomfort. I seized my chance, and asked Artha for a step up. Artha complied and I put her on my knee.
Without a word, I mimed the step up hand position to Birgit. She held out her hand and that good little bird responded! I snapped the moment. The rest, as they say, is history.
The vet’s wife visited a few more times and handled all the tame birds, but declared she’d never want a pet parrot for herself. I’ve also learned to keep the pet parrots in the conservatory until I’ve sounded out whether guests can cope with flying birds.
As you can imagine, it’s important to me that my family accepts my avian companions. Joan Burch, my younger son’s future mother-in-law, had never experienced pet birds up close. She said shyly that being around them made her nervous. However, she was excited and pleased when her eight-year-old granddaughter visited both the aviary and conservatory, although declined to touch or handle a bird.
Joan gritted her teeth in a Dunkirk spirit: “I’ll give it a go.” We sat down opposite one another. I had Artha with me; the others birds remained in the conservatory,
“She won’t bite?”
“She won’t bite.”
Joan held out a hand and Artha stepped up. Sensitive as Artha is, she kept her neck feathers tightly closed – she considered it safer to climb to Joan’s shoulder.
“Are you sure she won’t bite?”
“Yes, I’m positive.”
Joan’s lips curved into a nervous smile but nevertheless a smile. Her body posture relaxed – and so did Artha’s.
Dot Schwarz has kept parrots and parakeets for many years.