Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Least of These

Let's face it - - more children may grow up around cats than around birds. Therefore, it is often easier for us to relate to issues with cats more readily than birds.

For instance:

A little girl is playing with her new kitten. She runs to her mom crying after being scratched. Some expected responses from the mother:

1) I've told you not to bother kitty while she is sleeping...
2) Remember, when kitty is growling or wagging her tail, you need to back off....

3) How many times have I told you that the kitty doesn't like being petted?!

In a similar circumstance where a child is nipped by a budgie, what might some of the expected responses be? Of course, they might be the same. However, often well-meaning bird owners have a different set of responses:

1) Your bird is probably grumpy because it is molting...
2) I think your bird is trying to *be boss* and dominate you....
3) It is "that" time of year... sounds to me like your bird is hormonal!
4) Seems to me that your bird needs to know who is *boss*!!!

In the first scenario, the cat is displaying body language (growling and wagging of the tail), and the mother is suggesting that when the cat is otherwise engaged (napping) or displaying back off body language, that the child needs to learn to leave the kitten alone and thus avoid being scratched.

Do we usually hear folks suggest that the cat needs to learn that it cannot dominate humans? That the kitten needs to learn who is boss?

Anyone usually recommend we let a cat bite and scratch us until it learns that it cannot gain anything and eventually stops?

Can we imagine giving someone this advice about any biting and scratching animal? Well, many of us can. We have read advice just like this:

...that we should allow our birds to bite us, and not pull our hands back.
...that we should let the bird bite and pretend it doesn't hurt..
...that eventually the bird will learn that it cannot win...
...that we need to teach the bird who is *boss*...

Wow, what a dichotomy!

I believe that the extent to which body language is observed and respected could be directly proportionate to the animal's ability to 'put a hurtin' on the companion. Think about it... are we tempted to teach a king cobra who's boss? Would we allow a wild mink to bite us relentless until we were sure that it had learned it couldn't *win*?

Why might some push past and ignore the body language of a budgie, while being quite respectful of the body language of a macaw? Naturally, the reason that comes to mind is that the immediate, physical repercussions of ignoring budgie body language are not as dire as ignoring those of a macaw or angry badger. But the affect on the relationship remains the same.

It may simply be that it is easier (tempting) to force or coerce a behavior out of a budgie.... with just a teensy-weensie "gentle push" or just an itsy-bitsy aversive.

A bird that is performing a step up behavior because it has learned to do so to avoid a finger being shoved into its belly and the feeling of being pushed off the perch, performs the same step up behavior as a bird that learned it can gain a valuable reinforcer when stepping up. But the relationship that these birds and their companions share are quite different.

Many of us would easily choose for our birds to never step up rather than force the behavior through aversive methods. However, the good news is that it is not an either-or proposition.

Whether big beaks or small, furred or feathered, gentle or giants, how we treat the least of these whom have been entrusted to us, and the relationship we engender with them, speaks volumes.



Mary H. said...

Great post Robin!

Something every animal person should thing about.

Sadly, I think our horses often get treated like the budgie rather than the kitty.


Robin Cherkas said...

Excellent point, Mary. You are a fabulous ambassador to the equines of our world. :)

Arlene said...

Robin this is a great post. I wonder if it's the size of the budgie that makes people want to act superior and push them around a bit.
But as you said, they were all entrusted to us and rely on us. it's our job to give them the best life possible.
If my two budgie babes don't want to step up or perform tricks it's okay with me. At least I know they're happy and thanks to you I've learned how to reinforce when needed.

For all creatures great and small...:)

Arlene said...

P. S. Love the spring flowers by the way. :D

louara said...

I think that the attitude people have with budgies is that they are not a "real pet".
I guess it is because they are small and caged. Most people are unaware of the intelligence of birds and that they can learn and understand just as well as a dog or cat can.
I have never "trained" my budgies tricks either. It's more fun to see what they come up with on their own. They have certainly taught me a thing or two.

Anonymous said...

I have tried to gain my birdies' trust in the past with aversives(not that I knew they were aversives then). It seemed like they were the only way to go, but I realize what harm they can do.

Robin Cherkas said...

I can sure relate - the avian community has come a long way in learning about relationships with birds! I still make my mistakes - I hope less of them each day as I learn more!

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