October 31st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 44
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Into the World of Psittacines
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Hawkeye had the mental and emotional abilities of a five year old.
It might surprise you the reader to know that at one time my wife Lorraine and I were wrapped up in the psittacine family big time. Psittacine meaning tropical parrots. We are not talking small birds here like cockatiels or budgies. We’re talking big birds like two macaws, an African grey and a blue-fronted Amazon. For the better part of seventeen years these amazing creatures were an integral part of our lives.

There is so much goes into owning and caring for parrots of this size it blows the mind. I will admit I was a relative greenhorn when I first stepped into their world back in 1990. Lorraine on the other hand had owned a scarlet macaw (Ara Macao) back in the 1970’s named Koko that she eventually was forced to leave in Germany when she returned to Canada.

It all started for us by acquiring a blue and gold macaw (Ara ararauna) that we named Jonah and seemed to grow from there quickly into a wacky family of talking, whistling, singing, hollering birds that consumed a great deal of our time. As we became more adept at feeding and caring for these varied avian family we discovered a world that not many choose to step into. In the process we also came to realize that we were dealing with levels of intelligence and intuitiveness well beyond what most people realize they are capable of.

I think the thing we found most offensive after spending years with them was that the general public and Hollywood continued to portray them as those annoying “Polly wanna cracker squawking birds”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I will share with you some pretty profound instances of just how far off that stereotype is.
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Case in point. Our Congo African Grey (Psittacus erithacus) was named Hawkeye. Most of you may be aware of a famous African Grey named Alex that was part of a 31 year experiment with Doctor Irene Pepperberg. The name Alex is a backronym for avian learning experiment and Alex in the end could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six. He could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of "bigger", "smaller", "same", and "different." Very smart bird.

So my little African Hawkeye did not disappoint in his perceptive abilities as he expanded his vocabulary and took in the world we chose to keep him in. Hawkeye came to us along with Liddy the blue fronted Amazon (Amazona aestiva) from a couple in Red Deer who were moving to the States and could not take them with them. In Hawkeye’s Red Deer home was a tiny Pomeranian named Dolly whose sharp little bark and growl he could duplicate perfectly, ad infinitum. But in his new environment he soon tired of this, especially without Dolly there, and moved on to more challenging expressions.

Some sounds were easy. Like microwave beeps and door knocks, or an exact duplicate of Lorraine’s voice laughing on the phone! Piece of cake for him. It was intriguing to watch him absorb what was going on around him, grasp somewhat what it meant or what it was about, and then use his considerable vocal skills and dare I say intellect to build his vocabulary. You could see when he tilted his head and leaned in a bit that his tape recorder was on.

In short order he came to comprehend what certain actions meant. If I turned on the sink tap and he was thirsty he would say: “Wanna drink?” The inflection of asking a question was there. It wasn’t that he didn’t have his own fresh water. It was just that he associated that tap with a source of same. He even said Mmmmm! suggesting that it would taste good. If what we were eating looked interesting he would ask: “Want some?”
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Probably the most remarkable connection he made with me had to do with my leaving each morning to head for work at the mine. I must have said one time as I left: “Daddy gotta go to work.” So forever after if I picked up my briefcase he would say exactly that but only if I picked up my briefcase and appeared to be leaving. If Lorraine was heading downstairs in our house to groom yet another dog, something she did for a living for years, Hawkeye would say: “Gotta go to work’. But he did not use the term Daddy. That in itself suggests a level of cognition. Her action was different.

I made a critical mistake with Hawkeye. In testing his phenomenal whistling skills I thought I would teach him a song. A fairly complicated one. Not sure why I chose La Cucaracha, a traditional Spanish song about a cockroach who could not walk, but I did. And I made one small mistake as I whistled it to him. My whistle broke on the last note and it came out way off key. You guessed it. For ever after he nailed that song every time perfectly, except for that last note which used to make me cringe. It is no small feat for parrots to whistle. Remember they have no lips. Incidentally there was no food reward offered for his successes . That is what made his offerings so rewarding. He said it because he wanted to.

Little Liddy, the Amazon, had her own special vocabulary moments also. Her favourite was to say: “Awww, how are you” in exactly Lorraine’s voice. She also matched Lorraine’s “Come in” holler used for people knocking at the door or ringing the doorbell. It wasn’t unusual for people to walk in while Lorraine was downstairs after being invited in by Liddy. It fooled everyone. The “come in” had a distinct sound to it as in when hollering from a distance or downstairs. And boy could she sing high opera. With soaring gusto.

There was a goofy little game Liddy and I played. I would say: “Hey Liddy, bombs away”. And she would then make the whistling sound of a bomb plummeting to the ground whereupon I would make the explosion sound. It was usually repeated several times before one of us got bored with the game.

The macaws were a different story. They are not known to develop extensive vocabularies but when they do get a hold of a word they really use it. A lot! They called out to Lorraine by name regularly in a beckoning tone that intimated: “come here please”. Jonah the blue and gold liked the word hello and I can tell you he experimented with it intonation-wise until he had over fifteen different hello pronunciations he could do. Try it some time. See how many different variations on hello you can come up with. Its fun.
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A varied diet of fruit, nuts and vegetables was always there for them. Macaws have 700 psi crushing power in their big beaks so walnuts, filberts and pecans are quickly dispensed. One day I found a ¼ inch bolt on the floor that they had unscrewed from their cage and it was slightly bent. Yes bent. A bit intimidating to get that close to that much crunch power but once they bond with you there is no issue, no need to worry. Except if someone else approaches that they don’t know. Then you can get lightly nipped as a warning to keep that person away.

Parrots do something called “eye pinning”. That is to say their pupils expand and contract quickly and repetitively when they are excited, angry or scared. A kind of flash of the eye pupil. It can be a warning and is amazing to watch them telescope their pupils like that. When Haida, our spectacular Scarlet Macaw, would lean in close to my face and pin, it would make me laugh. I knew he was just being goofy.

Parrots also preen a lot. Every day led to a collection of discarded feathers and bits of waxy sheath that they peeled off their newly emerging feathers to let them unfurl. Moulted macaw tail feathers are long enough and big enough in diameter at the end that you can cut the tip off and insert a pen refill inside and voila you have a quill pen (sort of).

The gang was always lightly clipped along their wings edges, just enough to prevent a serious escape attempt but leaving enough that they could fly down to the floor or ground without injuring themselves. They also loved a bath which was accomplished with a fine spray on their stands outside in the summer. In the winter, on occasion, we would take the macaws into the bathroom shower, one at a time. I do not have the vocabulary to appropriately describe what it was like to stand in that shower with a macaw perched (gripping) onto my hand and flapping his four foot wing span as he gloried in that spray. Suffice to say I took a bit of a beating.
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It was an amazing time for us, those seventeen years. They were an integral part of our family, were bonded to us and we loved them all dearly. But in the end we realized that what they truly needed was to be parrots in a parrot environment with more of their kind. So in 2007 we packed them all up in our Expedition with travel cages and drove straight through to Vancouver Island to a rescue facility in Coombs. It was a long,heartbreaking journey. As we walked out the back door of that amazing facility, so as to not attract their attention, both macaws spotted us, raised their wings in the air as we had taught them to do, and hollered Good Bye. Good Bye.
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October 31st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 44
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