I have a friend who rescues parrots in her city, sort of as a hobby and just out of the goodness of her heart. She takes in several parrots a year, rehabs them and eventually places them into carefully screened new homes.
A couple of years ago, a twenty-something year old man contacted her and asked her to take in his young timneh african grey that he could no longer afford to care for.
This sweetly dispositioned parrot was in good health and appeared well maintained when he arrived. When asked what the parrot’s name was, the young man looked down at the floor and seemed reluctant to answer. Finally, he admitted that the bird’s unfortunate given name was…well, let’s just say it begins with “F” and rhymes with “truckhead” As you can imagine, “Little Trucker“, as he was affectionately called, had a very colorful vocabulary overall. No big surprise, my friend needed to change this bird’s name right away.
Our parrots have a very limited use of our language. They make connections to the things and people around them by using labels like: “blue”, “ball”, or “play”. Some go on to verbalize an understanding of descriptive words like: “hot” and “cold”, “hard” and “soft”, “big” and “small”. It’s all about having a name for everything. This includes themselves.
Their name and how it is used tells your parrot a lot. First, it is your verbal connection to the bird. When you call to Kiwi in the morning as you are getting up for the day, it tells her that she is valued. There is no question in her mind that you are addressing her specifically and haven’t forgotten about her or her needs during the course of the night. It is an important connection. Secondly the tone in which you use her name belies your mood and intentions.
Consider the impact on a bird to suddenly lose that connection. New home, new owners…new name? Really??
While shopping for supplies one day I saw a new cockatiel in the bird store that I often frequented in Chicago. When I asked about him, I was told that he was brought in by a customer who had learned that her son had developed an allergy to the bird. He was sweet and pretty and I couldn’t resist taking him home with me that day. He came with his cage, but not his name. That was the one thing they had forgotten to ask the formers owners. It was a few months before they could get a return call from them for this vital piece of information.
He was settling in nicely with my growing flock of cockatiels, but wasn’t very interactive with the family.
The call finally came that the former owners had been reached and we now had the bird’s name. I ran upstairs and greeted him with a big “HI COCOA!”, and something happened. His body language suddenly changed, and he came to the side of the cage wanting to be taken out. He was overjoyed at hearing his name and from that day on he was a different bird. My daughter and I still talk about the event to this day. He felt recognized by us, finally, and it changed him and our relationship.
It is completely understandable that one might want to rename a rehomed bird, and it can be done successfully over a period of time. It’s a simple, but slow, procedure that involves phasing in the new name in a way that makes it clear to the bird that this new label applies to him. During this transition, you will want not to exclude the former name entirely so as not to break the connection with your bird while you are establishing the new one. Your bird needs to be called by name, whatever it is you call him.
The easiest and quickest way to change a bird’s name is by giving a new one that sounds similar to the old one. Examples of this are an owner who changed her bird’s name from Panda to Brandi and anothers change from Lizbon to Bonnie. Both were accomplished in a short time.
Back to Truckhead: When the time came to rehome him, my friend made no secret of his background. She had already experienced some unfortunate timing in the delivery of his expletives, once during a business meeting at her house and another time when her daughter’s wedding planner was present. She explained to the new owners that the best way to make these words lose their power was to never use them and never respond to them.
He is doing well in his new home. He is now called Lucky, and indeed he is.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.