Of Birds and Horses

Our little green-cheeked conures were my first-ever pet birds, and I was really nervous about the prospect of taking care of such fragile little creatures in a household full of predators.

Truth be known, I’ve also harbored some fears about birds that I’ve had since childhood. I was never pecked or hurt by a bird, but I’ve always sensed their innate unpredictability and been a little wary of that.  I think some people are wary about horses for the same reason.

Our Christmas photo from 2003--the year we got Kiwi

Birds remind me of horses in so many ways it’s actually a little uncanny. One of the key things about birds–and horses–is that they take years of observation and handling to understand. You must always expect them to react instantly to any perceived threat (no matter how safe they feel with you), and developing a good relationship with these creatures requires a willingness to remain open to possibility. Then there is the whole flock/herd thing (being alone is bad) and all the mutual interdependency behaviors that come along with that (grooming, sharing food, etc.).

Our conures, Kiwi and Piper, are now considered “mature” since they’re over five years old. As we found out last year during a marathon nesting session, they’re both hens–even though we have always called Kiwi a “he” and we gave up trying to switch over to “she.”  Although we don’t spoil them as much now as we did when the boys were younger, they still live pretty high on the hog.

Once this loveable kid said, "Every time I look at Kiwi, I just get happy!" Makes me so sentimental to see this photo--not only because Thing #1 is so young, but because it's black-and-white and lightened so I could print it in the paper. I wrote a column once about how we had become Kiwi's "flock."

One of the most fascinating things to me this summer is that Piper does everything in her power to show No. 1 son that HE is her preferred human. Although the kid was gone for nine months last year at college (and the year before that), he is the only one in the household allowed to pet her. She grooms his beard. She leans her head against his neck. She crawls into his shirts. And although she has a pretty good relationship with me, she often won’t even let the twins pick her up.

So I watched No. 1 son this summer and how he treats Piper to see what makes him so different. One of the things that never fails to irritate me a little bit is the way he always gives Pipe the command “up” and then waits for her response.

I don’t bother with an “up” command with either bird–I think an extended finger coming toward their feet should automatically mean “step up–now.”   And in Piper’s case, I was of the opinion that we should demand “up” right away by moving our finger in closer if she didn’t comply with No. 1 son’s verbal request. She has always been more difficult to handle than Kiwi (we bought her at a pet store–Kiwi came from a much kinder home environment) and Pipe will often revert to annoying “wild bird” behavior.

But No. 1 son is patient, and he always waits for Piper to respond even if it takes a minute for her to comply. He’ll even wait for her even if I’m sitting there, exasperated, saying, “Come on, just make her do it! We’re late!”

The Wild One

There are many times I’ve seen people working with horses–particularly young horses–where they receive instant retribution for not complying with a request.  I’ve been guilty of this myself.  I know there are “no negotiation” rules with horses that they must obey (stay out of a human’s space even if you’re frightened, etc.) but I have no doubt that my son’s patience with this little bird is why she has such a special relationship with him.

I’ve written earlier this summer about the feral cat I brought home and how tightly he bonded with me, and I know that’s directly due to me spending lots of time with him. I “earned” my relationship with him by giving him lots of attention and affection when he needed it, and carnivores like cats and dogs respond quite predictably to physical affection. (Side note…one of the things I think people often overlook about cats is that play is really important. People seem to sort of “naturally” get this with puppies, who enjoy roughhousing and tug-of-war, but cats are intelligent enough to really appreciate a human who can come up with interesting string chase games, etc.)

Anyway. Although birds and horses also respond to physical attention and affection, it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that when you’re dealing with a prey animal that patience and allowing them the space to make choices appears to be just as important (or even more important) than physical affection.  One particular line that has stuck in my head this summer is the title of Imke Spilker’s great article:  “The Horse, Too, Is Allowed to Say No.”

We all know that the most gifted human parents are the ones who are patient and who are always “thinking ahead” to make it easy for children to do the right thing.  But as any parent knows, when you’re tired, distracted, and have a gazillion things to do–well, that’s the time you’re least likely to remember to say, “So, which kind of juice would you like? Grape or apple?” or respond patiently to a kid who says “But I don’t want juice.”

And too often, when we approach our horses or birds it’s at a time when we are rushed and we can’t offer the patience and time that they need and that we need if we hope to develop a close relationship with them.  Our patience is a way of proving to these animals that we understand and are making allowances for their innate natures.  Inventing “chase games” for a cat does exactly the same thing, but I think it’s much easier for a predator human to identify with a predator species in general.

Offering patience to a prey animal is really just the best way of saying: Even though we are different, I know who you are, and I love you.

I had a friend once ask me about buying a pet bird for her son because she knew how much we love our birds.  Of course there are the obvious things about birds (and horses) that people immediately bring up–cleaning up after them, feeding them, the financial investment, etc.–but rarely do you hear people talk about how horses and birds require a completely different sort of mental energy than a cat or dog. The intense observation and patience that’s required if you want to develop a good relationship with a prey animal takes years to develop, and it’s very hard to explain that to someone whose “pet” experience is limited to cats and dogs. I told my friend that I thought birds take more work than a dog or a cat, and left it at that.


How can I be in two places at once, unless I were a bird? ~ Boyle Roche

(PS–I’d like to thank everyone who commented or emailed me regarding my last (whimpering and whiny) post about my job. I deeply appreciate your kind remarks–I really needed some pats on the shoulder. I’m happy to report I’m in a much better mood than I was earlier this week.)

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One response to “Of Birds and Horses

  1. I’ve had a few birds in my life–a parakeet, a hawk and a cockatiel. The parakeet was my buddy for many years until my mom accidentally left my window open on a cold day and he got sick. :/ She felt really bad about that and blamed herself. Yours looks very happy and healthy. I imagine you could have them for many, many years. I made a mistake once and took a cockatiel that was “free”, but hadn’t been tamed and it was an adult. I could never get it tamed. It was so LOUD, too. That one got a new home after a couple of years.

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