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'Animal Matters' (July 2013):

GRIEVING PARROTS

“…Next take the example of parrots. Conjugal fidelity is the supreme quality among parrots. The firm attachment to each other in a parrot couple is not to be found even among highly developed human beings…the story of how Valmeeki was deeply moved when a hunter killed one of two birds who were a loving couple is well known. When one of the birds died, its mate followed suit, unable to bear the pangs of separation…when its mate dies, a bird will not seek another partner.  It will starve itself to death.  How many men care to follow the example of the birds in their devotion to monogamy?  Many are ready to remarry after the loss of their first wife. The supreme virtue of monogamy is a quality man can learn from birds... Thus there are many useful lessons to be learned from animals, birds and insects.” (Sai Baba, Sathya Sai Speaks, Volume 30, Chapter. 4)

For so long, animals have been misunderstood by man. Because they cannot express themselves in human language, it has been convenient for many to believe that they are automatons without feeling or intelligence and behave accordingly. This has had disastrous consequences for them and lead to untold suffering at the hands of human beings. Luckily, this attitude is slowly changing because scientists of animal behaviour are very much finding otherwise. They are now acknowledging what many animal lovers have intuitively known all along through their own observation and experience. They are finding that animals have rich emotional lives and are capable of much more complex thought processes than hitherto realised.

Parrots, for example, may have walnut sized brains but they are not actually birdbrained and have demonstrated unsuspected and remarkable cognitive abilities. They reportedly have the emotional age of a toddler and the intelligence of a five year old. Recent research has shown that some can also use the language they learn at appropriate moments and not just randomly, showing much more understanding than previously thought. I personally know of a good example of that. Once a particularly tedious acquaintance was visiting and complaining long and loudly, so much so that her listeners were quietly losing the will to live. Suddenly, my mother’s parrot, in another room,  screeched out some rude words in Greek in a meaningful way and at just the right moment. It did the trick in that the neighbour, on hearing the parrot’s words, jumped up in a fury, gathered up her belongings and flounced out of the house, never to come back, saying she had never been spoken to like that before in her whole life. It seems that even the parrot had become heartily fed-up at having to listen to her. What a good turn he did that day!

A zookeeper once told me that parrots are very particular about whom they mate with.  He explained that he had great difficulty in finding Mr or Miss Right for the parrots he looked after because they were extremely fussy and had to feel a real affinity with any prospective partner. As we know they are monogamous, as are swans and some other birds and animals, and this seems to apply not just to their parrot mates but also to the humans with whom they bond. They are very emotional and become passionately attached. If abandoned or separated from those they love they can suffer deeply. My mother’s own parrot literally died of a broken heart when her family had to emigrate and leave him in someone else’s care. He was my mother’s darling and when parted from his human flock, he refused to eat from that day on. Such was his grief that he just pined away and soon died.

Budgerigars are similar. A young boy I know once had a couple of budgerigars whom he was very fond of. One day, the female became ill and suddenly fell off her perch and died. Her mate became very distressed. He then stopped eating and soon he, too, died.  He could not live without her. Their owner, a young Japanese boy, was heartbroken himself and told me that he cried for three days when his budgerigars died.

Lastly, one cannot talk about parrots without mentioning the famous Alex. He was an exceptional grey parrot who, for thirty years, collaborated with Irene Pepperberg, an American professor of psychology studying animal cognition and trying to establish interspecies communication. Even though Alex was thought to be exceptional, he has opened the doors to a deeper understanding of what parrots are potentially able to do.  He knew well over 100 words and appeared to understand what he said. He could do simple arithmetic, name 50 objects accurately, and  answer questions about them. He could recognise different colours, shapes and sizes and understood what the concept of ‘zero’, ‘the same’ or ‘different’ meant. When one of the younger parrots that Irene Pepperberg was teaching mispronounced the word ‘green’, Alex, who was bossy with the younger birds, called out “Talk clearly! Talk clearly!”. Sometimes he acted as her assistant in teaching the younger birds. Like all parrots he was jealous and possessive and became huffy around Irene when she focussed her attention on others. He could communicate his needs for different kinds of food and the places where he wanted to be. There was a tree he liked to look at and when he wanted to do that, he used to say “Wanna go tree…”. Apparently, during conversations between Ms Pepperberg and her assistants, he would correct any mistakes they made! His last words, before he unexpectedly died one night, were “Be good, see you tomorrow, I love you”.

The more we learn about other living creatures, the more we can understand what is said in The Holy Koran:

“There is no beast on earth, nor bird which flyeth with its wings, but the same is a people like unto you. All God’s creatures are his family and he is most beloved of God who tryeth to do the most good to God’s creatures.”

(Article written by Mercini Sherratt for Vedanta Empire's charity incentive)

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