Friday, March 29, 2013

My Bird Knows When She Is Bad, Right?? !! (Hmmm)...

It is not uncommon to hear someone say that their bird "knew" they had been *bad*.  But how exactly might one reach such a conclusion?  Most frequently this is due to the bird performing a behavior that the human perceives to be a display of remorse.

This line of thinking immediately assigns two human characteristics to the bird, that is 1) that the bird is able to discern that the human is (fill in the emotion): upset, angry, disappointed, etc.; and 2) that the bird is expressing 'remorse' through its actions.

This was brought clearly to my mind earlier in the month when I responded to a post where a companion indicated that their bird 'knew' that they had been bad, and showed this by cuddling with the owner after the 'incident' (a/k/a bite).

Most certainly, all of us, including animals, respond to non-language cues such as vocal intonation, volume, etc.  But to associate a later behavior by a bird as an act of remorse or understanding of our emotions, is even more than a far stretch. Such a belief is likely to cause disappointment if the bird later does the behavior we thought they understood we disliked!  

I used the following example to illustrate this dynamic and how easy it is to misinterpret a response:

Imagine you are a foreign exchange student and do not understand the local language.  You are seated at dinner, and the father of the family comes in, sits down and immediate starts yelling at you.  

Naturally, you have absolutely no idea what he is saying.  You do, however, pick up that there is a big problem by his intonation, volume, and the fact that his face is red and he is pointing at you!  It does appear that you've done something he did not like!  

Since you do not understand the language, you are left to guess at what the problem might be:

1.  You are sitting in his chair.
2.  You started eating before he arrived.
3.  You are not dressed appropriately.
4.  You have your elbows on the table which is an insult in his culture.
5.  You are using the wrong cutlery.
6.  He just came from the bathroom where he believes it was you that left the toilet lid up.

These are only a few of the possibilities.

Now you have a real dilemma.  While you know he is upset, and you want to repair the relationship, the communication gap has left you guessing about the true source of the problem.  

After dinner, you decide to sit next to him on the couch and make 'nice-nice' by smiling a lot, being as polite as possible, and not doing anything to draw any negative attention to yourself.

The father of the family does seem to be more relaxed.  However, you still do not know exactly what upset him.  Recalling the incident, you realized that you did start eating before he arrived, and as you recall, no one else did.  Yes, that must be the problem!  (Although, it would have been nice if someone else gave you a head's up!)  You most certainly won't make that mistake again!

The next night the entire family again gathers for dinner.  You patiently wait, as does everyone else, and you notice they are looking at you a bit strange... maybe it is just your imagination?  

In walks the father, and as if it is a repeat of an old movie, he begins once again to yell, and seems even angrier than last night!   What now?!  You thought you knew the problem!  How confusing and frustrating is this?!

Given the language barrier, at best you could only guess the problem, and obviously you guessed wrong.

Had the father assumed that your behavior of the previous night (sitting next time him quietly, smiling, etc.) was an indication that you understood what you did wrong, he will certainly be disappointed and frustrated with you as well!

Now there is a big problem for both of you - the communication gap still exists, and the two of you are more frustrated than ever.

Here is where the analogy fits with our birds: we have a communication gap with them too.  If after a bird bites it then cuddles, we cannot assume they understood the problem any more than the father in the analogy above could.  Until clear communication can be established, both parties are left guessing or assuming, and that results in a stressful, unproductive relationship.

I know it is very tempting to assign human emotions to our animals.  So to the person who believed that a bird cuddling after a bite indicated that it understood that it did something bad, then I would ask what does this mean for other times that the bird is cuddling?  Is it always cuddling to indicate the same thing?

I hope this little analogy makes sense or gives an opportunity to analyze things from a slightly different perspective. 

We can experience a great deal of frustration if we believed our bird understood an emotion and showed remorse, only to have the bird do the same thing the next day.  We do not speak the same language as our birds, but there is an opportunity to create a basis of communication through building a trusting relationship resulting in a win-win.

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