Although other bird species may indicate recognition, acknowledgement and excitatory behaviour such as louder than normal vocalisation, increased activity or expanded wing tremors when the owner comes in to view, it is mostly the hook-bills or psittacine species which show greater interaction and intimacy towards people.
This is interpreted by humans and displayed by birds as behaviour patterns of preening human hair, face and hands while some individuals will bow their heads for reciprocal grooming.
The human-parrot bond can become intense enough for a bird to regurgitate its food for the ow-ner. This is certainly startling for people who don’t expect this. In the wild, particularly male birds often regurgitate pre-digested food and offer it to their prospective mates as part of the courtship ritual.
Eye-pinning is another popular show of affection and excitement where a certain percentage of birds contract the pupils of their eyes when looking at their owners. If the irises are pigmented, as in male cockatoos, this behaviour may not be easily noted. Cuddling can be done by some birds by leaning over to the owner’s face, shoulder or neck, fluffing up its head feathers and rubbing gently.
The ultimate compliment from a parrot is when the bird drops its seeds, toys or food to come directly to the person.
Some people suffer from delusions of grandeur regarding the level of affection a bird may offer. Some will ask their bird if it loves them and all it needs to do is bob its head up and down to convince any person that the parrot is completely cognisant of the meaning of every word said.
All the bird has learnt is a response to human behaviour which has been found most rewarding, mutually, and is, therefore, merely conditioned to behave in a certain pattern. Once the bird experiences a positive response to its parrot-fashion reply, it will be more inclined to repeat its vocal sounds until it becomes a habit.
It needs to be clarified it is anthropomorphic to believe that birds can be affectionate in the same context as humans. Affection is the human perception but, in reality – and in terms of instinctive animal behaviour – the bird is exhibiting tolerance and a bond towards humans.
Parrots are highly intelligent and observant creatures with a wide range of feelings, sensitivities to human moods and individual personalities so they do deserve the patience, understanding, respect and reciprocal interaction that we would expect from other people. Parrots do express happiness, curiosity, hectoring, aggression and fear.
When a bird’s nature changes if the owner is sick it is often perceived as empathy and love for that person. Instinctively the bird has detected a change in human behaviour and activity which is the parrot’s inherent means of trying to evaluate the alteration of circumstances and to determine, over a given period of time, as to whether the situation is safe or threatening. In the case of a sick person the lengthy change in the parrot’s behaviour is not related to its affection for its owner, but rather that the bird is not experiencing any social pressure, is being given a respite in interaction and is merely reviewing the situation until further notice.
When over-attached birds are separated from their owners, about 70% can acquire and exhibit the most severe behaviour disorders, particularly separation anxiety. This can’t be construed in the context that the bird is pining for its loved one.
Separation anxiety is the inability to cope in the absence of company because, initially, the bird was never taught independence and coping skills. Some people would like to believe that their pet birds are love-sick and miss them badly but, in essence, these birds are highly stressed creatures often requiring psychotropic medication such as Prozac, or its generics, or being collared to prevent potentially fatal self-injury. Birds can’t shed tears, nor attempt suicide.They can’t escape their stress so they have to resort to behaviours which offer them temporary relief, irrespective how painful it may be.
While the bond between pet bird and owner can be very strong, the level and perception of affection is anthropomorphic and in the mind of the person involved. If people believe that their Budgie or Cockatoo loves them, that their African Grey misses them or their Green Amazon has empathy for their troubles, then if it makes people feel good they must continue believing it as it may benefit the bird in the long-term.
But with scientific knowledge of avian instinctive behaviour, although birds have a wide range of emotional responses and intelligence, the affection can’t be on the same level as a humans. The therapeutic benefits of the companionship and “affection” meted out by some birds are remarkable and can be the cure to human depression.