Pet Prose: Birds and Bodyguards

Birds and Bodyguards
by The Pet Pro

One of my favorite stories of animal intelligence is the one I read recently about the barn cat who got herself some canine bodyguards. There was a large group of mostly feral ‘outdoor’ cats living on a farm in a loose society as they sometimes do. Their job was to keep down the ever-present rodent population, and they did it well. One of the smaller kitties was having a hard time because the other cats didn’t like her for some reason and were constantly ganging up on her and beating her up.

In a large enclosure right next to the barn lived a small pack of wolf-dog hybrids that were employed to keep larger predators away from the livestock. Over a period of some months, the cat who was being tormented was seen taking a bird or mouse she had caught and dropping it over the fence for the dogs. She continued bringing daily gifts to her fearsome neighbors until they began to consider her a friend. Then one day when another cat was chasing her, she popped over the fence and took refuge among the big dogs, safe in a place where the other cats would never dare follow. Her feline torturers stopped picking on her once they realized who her new friends were.

As another example, the squirrels and birds in the park where I walk dogs every day have become savvy about people. They have little fear of dogs on a leash, and seem to know they are in no danger. If the ducks or geese begin to cluck in agitation as I approach, I say, “Okay, pretty birds, you’re okay,” in a friendly manner, and they settle right back down. These are wild birds, but they obviously understand from my tone and demeanor that I mean them no harm.

Animals are extremely emotionally sensitive. They feel our emotional state and react accordingly. In working with large birds, I have learned that they are at least as smart as dogs some may be smarter. My friend has an African Grey parrot named Timmy she adopted from a situation where he was unwanted. He used to throw a lot of seed out of his cage and his owner never really bonded with him. The night before he was to go to his new home, he looked his owner in the eye and said clearly, “You’re a pain in the ass!” He had never said this before (although he had probably heard it a lot), and has never said it since, although he says many other things. He almost never throws his seed now. His new owner, assuming his intelligence, trained him not to. The first few times he tried it, she just calmly said “No,” and took his food away for a little while. He quickly got the point.

A neighbor of mine told me that one of her relatives has a dog, a Yorkie, and a parrot. The bird has learned to imitate his owner’s voice. His favorite trick is to tell the dog “No!” to make him back away so he can steal the dog’s kibble.

Then there is the famous African Grey named Alex who was the subject of years of study by his owner who I believe was a behavioral psychologist. Alex shattered all the previous assumptions about bird intelligence. He learned to count, to add, subtract and multiply, tell colors, identify the material of which an object was made (wood, metal, wool, glass), and much more. He demonstrated, through careful experiment, all kinds of abstract thought that had been considered impossible for a creature with a brain the size of a walnut. Once, when he was sick and had to be left at the vet overnight, he said sadly to his owner, “I’m sorry,” as she said goodbye. It seems he thought he must have done something wrong and knew the words that might grant him forgiveness.

Then there was the experiment with the pigeons, long thought to be not very smart. When given a series of images to choose from, the birds learned quickly that if they pushed a lever when the image of a tree was on the screen, they would earn a food reward. The experimenters then removed the reward trigger photo and displayed some more images, mixing in a new picture of a group of trees of a different variety than the single tree they had seen before. They immediately chose the correct picture, understanding that it was of the same kind of object — that different trees plural were in the same category as a tree singular. This seems like a small thing, but to the researchers it was huge. The birds had not just learned what to chose by rote repetition, but had understood the concept of a “tree.”

In closing, science is finally beginning to accept that intelligence is not just a human quality, so please, never underestimate your animal companion’s capacity to understand and communicate with you, and of course, to love.

TRAINING TIP: W.W.W. The letters stand for Whistle, Whisper, and Wait. Remember that your dog has millions more scent receptors than you. The world outside is wonderfully distracting, so first whistle meaning make some sound to get your dog’s attention. Dogs have very good hearing as well, so you never have to shout. Whisper meaning give commands in a soft voice and your dog will hear you. And finally, Wait give your dog a chance to respond before you correct him. And always, always, be calm, and be kind.

Happy Trails!

The Pet Pro

Please send your own stories, questions and comments for possible inclusion in future columns to The Pet Pro at: PetProse@LTsaloon.org

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