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Human/Animal Bond

The Parrot's Tale
July 13, 2015 (published)


Michael Steele (c)2008
“Treat him like you would a very intelligent four-year old boy and you’ll be fine.”I tried not to shower my friend in suspicion and derision. After all, if there is one thing veterinarians know, it’s not to treat our patients as small or large people.

Anthropomorphism (anthropos: human; morphe: shape, form), assigning human traits or characteristics to non-human animals, is typically a big no-no in the veterinary world. Seriously, we even have lectures on it in vet school. Generally, anthropomorphic avoidance is a good thing. When you treat a dog as you would a pre-schooler or a horse as a teenager, you’re consciously or subconsciously forgetting the innate nature of the species.

This time, however, my training felt wrong, and I was about to learn something.

Nikolai is an 11-year-old male cockatoo who lives with dear friends of mine in Texas. (Notice I didn’t say “belongs to.” I’m pretty sure they, and now I, belong to Nikolai.)

Having spent my pre-vet years volunteering in a veterinary clinic owned by an avian vet where the office pet was a chatty, bratty macaw, I felt pretty confident with this getting-to-know-the-bird thing. As a result of over-exposure to the aforementioned macaw, and fear for my ears and fingers, I’m not much of a bird person, but I’d heard enough about Nikolai to figure he’d be amusing if nothing else. And after all, I do know the basics of birds. I thought.

Maybe it has something to do with being raised in a household of mad scientist types, but Nikki bears about as much resemblance to the birds I encountered in my veterinary assistant days as Einstein (Albert) would to Einstein (Baby) videos.

“Get down from there! I don’t have money to pay for surgery, stupid bird.” My friend’s exasperation penetrated the living room windows. I uncurled from the couch and looked out the back door. Nikolai had discovered a plastic connector at the very top of his palatial outside aviary and was doing his best to dismantle it. Securely outside the reach of even 6’7” Michael, the bird had the upper hand.

“Christy, can you go over there,” Michael pointed to a branch bolted to the side of the aviary, “and see if you can get him to come to you?”

Having no delusions regarding my status as bird-whisperer, I had my doubts about the plan but I took my post and looked up. “Nikolai...” I called in my hey-kids-I-have-ice-cream voice. “Scritches?”

Crest popped up. “Scritches?”

“Yes, silly bird. Come get scritches. Down here.”

White feathers fluffed, anti-gravity bird immediately began space walking upside down along the ceiling of the cage toward me. Catching the wire of the wall in his beak, he swung down toward the perch. “Scritches?”

I reached through the wire (generally a no-no around birds who can chew through branches let alone human fingers) and scratched and rubbed the side of his head. Nikolai half-closed his eyes in pleasure.

This was my second visit and by now Nikolai had me almost properly trained. “Scritches” is his favorite command, issued in almost the same tone my youngest child used to demand “’Nuggles!”

“Kisses” is another favorite order, and kisses are mandatory for both greeting and good night. If you think that it takes a certain mustering of courage to put one’s lips within range of the hedge-trimmers that masquerade as a parrot beak, you’d be right. But it would take a heart four or five sizes too small to refuse to kiss this bird. It’d be like refusing to answer a telephone offered by a toddler. Some things just aren’t done.

Speaking of telephones, did you hear the one about the parrot and the video call?

It goes something like this: Christy: “Hello?” (Jolting picture) Nikolai in background: “Hello Nikolai!” Michael: “Sorry, walking over to the bird. He wants to say hi.” Nikolai: “HELLO NIKOLAI! I’M NIKOLAI!” Christy: “Hi Nikolai.” (Human conversation) (Jolting picture, bird in frame) Michael in background: “Yes, there she is, Nikolai. He needed to see you. Now he wants scritches. (Aside) Yes, I’m *giving* you scritches.”

Talking to a cockatoo owner is pretty much like trying to have a phone conversation with the harried parent of toddler triplets. Living with a cockatoo is as much work as raising a terrifyingly precocious toddler.

And like a toddler, Nikolai considers everything a toy. Blocks, phones, screwdrivers, cage, food, coconut shells, laundry…if he can grab it, it’s a toy, a tool, or both. In fact, he is so adept at toy deconstruction, Mike spends a fair amount of time in his shop/garage playing Santa’s elf for the cockatoo.

Settling down to watch a movie one night, Meg said “Shall I make some P-O-P?” Mike turned to me, whispering, “We can’t even spell popcorn anymore or Nikolai starts screaming it.” “POPCORN?!” Meg looked at Mike. “Good job.”

Feeding Nikolai is almost a full-time job. His bags of seed are frozen in smaller portions to keep out weevils and moths. The veggies in the freezer are for the bird. Ditto the whole coconut on the counter and the baked yams in the fridge. The cashews and almonds are Nikolai’s. Leftovers are brought home for the bird. Nikolai had an episode a while back where he damaged his crop and could only eat baby food. His diet is currently supplemented with organic, premium baby food. He doesn’t approve of turkey, by the way. Energy bars bought for the humans are only the non-chocolate varieties, as chocolate is toxic to birds, so that Nikolai can have his bites too. Yeah, I tried eating a Larabar all by myself. That doesn’t fly.

You’d think that all this energy would translate into lots of exercise. Well, Nikki does get plenty of outdoor adventuring – riding on the shoulder of his “battle monkey” (aka Mike). Walk time is also flock bonding time, and heaven forbid the flock strays. One evening, Nikolai, properly kitted out in a purple harness, was in his command perch atop the battle monkey while Meg and I walked a few paces behind as protocol demands. (Not behind the human male, behind the bird.) As Mike checked the weather on his phone, ensuring that we weren’t likely to be washed away or sucked into a Texas tornado, Meg and I accidentally broke ranks and strayed ahead. We paused and turned at the laughing “Oh my Godddd” from behind us. “He’s flapping his wings to make me go faster.”

Sure enough, Nikolai, wings outspread and crest raised was leaning forward, urging his steed onward and squawking at us.

If you’re beginning to think this looks like a family, you’re absolutely right. It is exactly like raising a small child, even down to the nightly play time and tuck-in.

Like a tired child, Nikki is prone to the evening crazies. So before bedtime, it’s play time. My favorite image is watching Michael and Nikolai dancing in the living room, wings spread, crest raised, bobbing and shrieking together to the music. Even better was seeing the dance interrupted so that Nikolai could go back to his perch to poop. He’s generally quite fastidious about using the proper locations for his toilet needs.

If you haven’t already guessed by now, Nikolai’s awesomeness is the result of TONS of socialization and work. The average person going to a pet store, buying a bird and cages, would be likely to experience very different results without putting in equal effort. Michael emphasizes how hard these critters are to properly socialize and how they are not pets, let alone pets for everyone. "Avian shelters are chock full of horror stories that will rip your heart out over and over about birds that bond with people who just can't put in the required effort," Michael says, "and so the bird spends the next 50 years, slowly dying from sadness and loss for the family that abandoned them. Cockatoos are like adopting a handicapped human child - they will never grow up and leave for college, and they are a lifetime commitment for you, and likely for your children."

Nikolai benefits from that work.

Nikolai has three separate cage areas. His living/dining room cage; his outdoor aviary/playground; and his bedtime “nest” cage. Since birds are protective of their nests, having a separate cage for eating and playtime from sleep helps to prevent behavioral problems. Every night around 9:30, it’s “time to tuck the bird in.” Water bowls are cleaned and replaced, a toy is selected from the box, and everyone in the house - everyone - traipses to the back room to say goodnight to the bird with kisses on the scary beak and proper admiration of his nest building (i.e., block-shredding) skills.

Birds aren’t small people, but I’ll admit, finding yourself mooning over pictures of a white bird and smiling hugely because the bird insisted on “looking for Christy” the day after you left is very much like falling in love with a person. I’m still not sure about the anthropomorphic thing, but I have to agree, having a Nikolai is much like having a child; like a child, with many of the same demands on time, energy, and emotion. Like a child, Nikolai will likely outlive his human parents.

3 Comments

Michael J Steele
July 14, 2015

Kelly - 100% on target.  To clarify; Nikki eats pretty much all fresh veggies with some pellets. He doesn't really like fruit, and his non-fatty seed is apparently mostly for throwing out of his cage.  Our household 'people food' diet is actually centered around cockatoo needs; he get very little fats, no processed food or stuff with chemicals or salt whatsoever.  Recently we added a little fat and more protein to offset a surgery weight loss, but now his weight is back up into a safer region we've tapered that off.


Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
July 13, 2015

Thank you so much, Kelly, for your feedback and the resources listed.  In fairness to Nikolai and his people, I should probably clarify that I skimmed over parts of his diet (trying to highlight the labor-intensity), and also that some of his current diet is a temporary response to weight loss he suffered during a recent illness, and that it and he are closely monitored by their avian veterinarian. But your accurate nutritional feedback is definitely welcome!!


Kelly H
July 13, 2015

Nikolai sounds like an amazing character! Thank you for featuring a parrot, and highlighting the difficulty in keeping them well-adjusted as pets. Just wanted to note that the diet mentioned in the article is inappropriate, and will cause eventual malnutrition and likely cardiovascular disease. Parrots (including cockatoos) should eat a pellet and vegetable based diet. Very limited to no fruits, nuts, and people food; seeds should be avoided. Most parrots on seed/nut/fruit/people food diets die in their 20's to 30's. Lots of good resources available, including Brian Speer's book Birds for Dummies, thegabrielfoundation.org, and veterinarypartner.com



 
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