Learning and teaching consent with a parrot

There is a new creature living in my house. She communicates through raised and sleek feathers, eye-pinning, a whole range of chuckles, beeps and squawks (at the moment she’s sounding weirdly like R2-D2). She has a beak capable of biting off chunks of wood. Sometimes I jokingly call her a dinosaur or an alien as a way of making sense of her strangeness, but she is a creature of earth and sky and the present day and I feel uncomfortable suggesting that she is of a different time or space. The problem lies with me and with my lack of familiarity.

So, a bit about her: she’s a parrot, a Bronze Wing Pionus to be precise. She’s approaching her first birthday and I’ve had her for three months. Before I got her, she was kept with other young Bronze Wings so hopefully she knows she’s a bird rather than being so imprinted on humans it will cause her problems when she hits sexual maturity.

It’s a very different experience from dealing with dogs or rats or cats or horses or pretty much any other animal I’ve looked after. I am used to soft fur and touch as comfort. I am used to space-invading snuggles, sleepy mammals piled up on top of each other so you can barely tell where each animal ends and another begins. I am used to being able to pick up and/or easily handle most of these animals. Leia will not tolerate these casual liberties. She’s fully flighted, has never been clipped, and can easily choose to avoid me if she wishes. I am trying to show her that I will listen to her and respect her wishes so she can tell me if she’s unhappy or doesn’t want to do something without resorting to biting. Her ancestors have not been selectively bred for tameness and compliance. She is not hardwired to accept dominance or hierarchy; instead there is flock, and careful, subtle, shifting negotiations within the flock.

We have spent much of the past three months learning about each other and how to understand what the other is trying to communicate. In a way it is an experiment, but only in the same way that all my relationships are experiments. I’ve found a lot of my understanding about consent to be applicable to this wild and clever creature.

My feelings do not override her feelings
I loved Leia before I ever met her. Her breeder sent me regular photos and updates about her. I saw her as a tiny, naked baby; as a downy youngster growing her wing feathers; at weaning; with her parents and clutchmates. I learnt what toys she liked and made sure I got her some. I scoured the internet for a suitable cage and, dismayed at how small and high the majority are, ended up ordered a custom made cage. I went into this knowing the commitment I was making to a bird that might hate me, try to attack me and who I may never touch. I was enchanted anyway.

Leia stepped out of the box she was transported in and erupted into flight. I am much smaller than her breeder. I have darker skin and my voice is different and my movements are different and, horrors, I wear glasses. I am a stranger to her and she needed time to work out if she was willing to trust me. I might have loved her but she had no idea who I was and whether I was an acceptable flock member. I had to let her learn about me on her terms. I couldn’t let my feelings override her autonomy. Forcing my presence on her would have been counterproductive, making me into a thing to be feared and avoided.

She was interested in me and wanted to watch what I was doing. She wanted to sit on her stand on my desk and watch me. She was happy to accept treats and toys from my hands. I had to take things at her pace. It took her about three weeks to accept a headscratch from me.

A “yes” is only as meaningful as a “no”
I ask Leia is she wants a headscratch by making a scratch motion with my fingers above her head, within her sight and crucially, not touching her. If she doesn’t want a headscratch, she’ll either beak my fingers or move away. If she does want a headscratch, she’ll bow her head and fluff up her head feathers. I’m trying to show her that I’ll respect her “no” – that she can tell me “no” and I won’t ignore it and do the thing anyway. I hope to teach her that she doesn’t have to reinforce her “no” with a bite or, worse, feel she has to go straight for the bite as that’s the only thing I’ll understand.

However, Leia sometimes beaks my fingers while I’m scratching her and these seem to have a variety of meanings. I’m now trying to work out if her grabbing my fingers with her beak is a “no, not now”, a “yes, and I’m going to direct you to a particularly itchy spot”, a “stop, I’ve had enough”, a “stop, that was the wrong spot” or her preening me in return. We’re still working out the complexities of that bit of communication. She’s usually pretty gentle even when telling me to stop, and I think that’s because she doesn’t feel the need to go harder. She trusts that I’ll listen.

Consent is everyday
Consent isn’t just about the big things like medical interventions or sex. Asking for, receiving or being denied consent is present in so many of our interactions. I do it when I check with a student if it’s alright to forward information on to someone else, check with a child whether they’d prefer a hug, handshake or something else, and give my students the information they need to make an informed choice about how they engage with difficult, upsetting material. Living with Leia is a masterclass in making these negotiations explicit and visible.

Leia now sits on my knee while I work, and increasingly often hauls herself up my sleeve so she can sit on my shoulder. She has begun to step up onto my arm when she feels like it, but as she steps up nicely onto a rope perch I see no reason to push it. I’ve taught her to target a (chop)stick. We have several headscratching sessions a day, and she preens my hair and has tried to preen my eyelashes with extraordinary gentleness. We are working out how to have contact calls so she knows I’m around even if she can’t see me. She appears to have taught me to retrieve by throwing her foot toys off my desk and looking expectantly at me. Last night I lay on the floor to read, and for part of this I had a small parrot wandering around on my back.

It’s challenging trying to communicate across such a species barrier. She can probably see in UV, and probably uses her feathers and light to communicate in ways I am literally blind to. I am probably just as challenging for her to read, with my mammal ways and glasses covering my eyes and fabric coverings. We are muddling our way through, and beginning to make sense of each other.

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One Comment

  1. This is so beautiful. Really inspiring on all sorts of levels. Thank you for sharing :)

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