Dogs have been living among humans for a very long time – this fact is documented throughout much of our recorded history. During this time, we have bred favorable traits into them and slowly excised the unsociable ones to make them more suited to life as a pet.
We have engineered breeds that are suited to perform certain tasks such as herding (collie), hunting (spaniel) or search and rescue (German shepherd.) that give dogs a place of their own in human society. Throughout the process, dogs have been modified to our benefit.
Imagine how different things will be for bird owners when birds become domesticated, which is inevitable. Since we are doing such a spectacular job of slowly destroying the habitats of the wild bird species around the world, it is safe to assume that sometime, in the not-so-distant future, many species of birds will only exist in captivity.
I cringe when I look to the future and see a time when birds have been modified in a way that makes them predictable and compliant. My very favorite thing about birds is their independence and their randomness of thought – something to be found in any intelligent species.
I remember being told by a friend of the late Steve Irwin, Australia’s beloved Crocodile Hunter, that he was afraid of parrots. When I first heard this, I had to giggle. Here is a guy who would fearlessly take on a deadly predator that outweighed him by a huge amount, yet he was afraid of something under 2 ½ pounds.
We owners know not to underestimate the business end of a parrot – those beaks can cause some serious hurt. But still, there really isn’t any comparison to the harm a crocodile can inflict.
When you think about it for a minute, it becomes clear…it wasn’t the beak that scared him, it was the brain. A crocodile does things in ways that have always served them well. When observing a crocodile, Steve Irwin could forecast its moves – “now it’s going to use the death roll”. He always knew what was coming next and that was how he stayed safe around them.
But while a crocodile is likely to behave in established ways, a parrot might use a different strategy each time it needs to solve the same problem. Parrots are unpredictable and that can be scary when behaviors might result in a bite.
However, that unpredictability is the same quality responsible for some of the things we claim to love the most about our birds, such as their ability to make us laugh and catch us off-guard with an unexpected act. Or the snickering you might hear when you trip over something. Or the perfectly timed “I love you” just as you discover the hole in your curtains.
And yes, it can also make life with a parrot difficult. Unpredictability reflects intelligence and when something can think, it can create and plot. If there is something a parrot wants, it will find a way to get it, whether that happens through manipulating you, or tunneling through a wall. Sometimes their intelligence is used against us.
I am willing to bet that unpredictability would be the first quality humans would choose to eradicate to increase a parrot’s value as a pet, but lost in that process would be a great deal of their intelligence…and charm. I am at a loss to see any possible gain through the domestication of a parrot. I don’t want to ever live with a dumbed-down version of the creature I have come to love, but I know the day is coming.
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.