On what I learned from Rose-ringed Parakeets
Since a child, I was fascinated by birds — specifically parrots. I think I thought they are very odd among other birds. Not just because they look beautiful thus stand out but also because they behave strangely. They can hang from branches and perform some unique stances. They use their beak as another leg or an arm to walk not just because they can but probably because they are so lazy. One would catch a branch with its beak and swing to grab hold of it with its feet. Thus they can walk on almost all kind of angled surface. Speaking of walking, a parrot has what one might call obligate bipedalism like a human. But these limbs are not mere legs either. They use them as hands to eat food like we do. These masters of mobility are playful in the flight and tree branches and on the ground. Maybe it is entirely wrong to project our idea of limbs to understand their behaviour altogether. Yet, some of the mannerisms they have do not let me think I should do otherwise either. They remind them to bring food to the beloved; once they find something significantly delicious in their daily routine. It seems as that they know who they are and what they care about. Once a wild parrot sees you, it looks at you like, “what are you up to?” All these rather first impressions planted a feeling in me to think that these beings should not just pigeonhole as birds. They are as they were some sort of small people in strange suits.
Rose-ringed Parakeet is the most common parrots species in Sri Lanka, among four other kinds. The male bird has a rose and black coloured ring-like mark around its neck and has a pale bluish-grey shade back of its head. The longfin feathers of the male bird could look almost blue in colour when it’s young. The female bird is not that vivid, though she has a red beak like the male one. And both have tropical lush green feathers to keep them camouflage in the background. But of course, this description is not fair. Because it flattens the diversity within their society. If you look closely, not all of them has the same red colour in their beaks. Some are purplish or blackish. Even the feathers of the body could be slightly darker or lighter. Sometimes there are birds with yellowish feathers scattered all over the body without any significant order, which might be a sign of a sickness or lack of some nutrients. Therefore a closer look at a flock of parrots makes one wonder how insensitive it is to pronounce them as a single species. Yes, they have so many things in common, yet they are also as diverse as possible.
It is not only the appearance but also the character of the individual. Even though we might not notice these finite details, they might have significant meaning within their societies. There was this one female I remember who visited our home garden daily. She was old and quite aggressive. She had a purplish beak, and the army green feathers on her body made her look somewhat a dark character, even figuratively. She travelled alone and, in the time of the feast, joined the pandemonium. Everyone else either respected her or feared that she would bite hard and damage one’s feathers. A very young male bird was also there in a rather luminous green colour in the flock, who had a significant shape in his fin feathers. He tried to fight the old woman, or maybe he tried to say “calm down, ma’am” from time to time. They clearly do have social status as individual characters. There are fighters, divas and innocents. There are angry old women, young rebels and loving mothers and fathers. Also, some notorious clans try to dominate the scene and couples who don’t give a damn about what’s going on in the mass.
It is a ubiquitous Sri Lanka site to see pandemonium parrots roaming the sky or gathering around a paddy field. But they are also lonely travellers once in a while. Even though they are very demonstrative as a flock, they are quite shy and difficult to notice when alone. It’s also widespread to have them as pets due to their ornamental appearance and their ability to mimic human speech in scattered words and phrases. I have heard of some situations where wild parrots bring chilli or poisonous seeds to pet parrots in cages. I don’t know whether this is a myth or a fact. But it is true that they visit and bring certain things to the caged ones. People also regard them as pesticides since they can do significant damage to agricultural crops. Parrots attack paddy fields in large pandemoniums of few hundreds. They can eat any kind of seed, and they feed on almost all the variety of fruits that can be found in their habitat. And they nest in a tree cavity or crevice made mostly by a woodpecker. And the fact they can fly relatively very high and fast, the area they can cover within a day is vast.
These behaviours lead them to interact with a large number of various beings who dwell in their landscape. An Oriental magpie-robin, in contrast, has a tiny niche. It does not fly very high as a parrot or a Common mynah. Therefore a parrot meets few magpie families with significant mannerisms within a day. Magpies are masters of singing and mimicry. Each family has its own sounds representing its niche. So does the Common mynah. They have a more extensive habitat, yet their songs also express the landscape they roam. And there are also Balck drongos who are also able to mimic sounds. They are very famous for imitating cats and hawks’ call, both as an alarm for fellow beings and for deceiving them and stealing others food. “It’s the most sophisticated example of vocal deception, outside of my own species, that I’ve ever seen,” says John Marziuff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle¹. The point is Rose-ringed parakeets are good observers. They, too, are good at mimicry suggests they might even copy some mannerisms from others, not just the vocals. Individuals have their own song like a piece of vocal composition, which they use to utter during lazy hot mid-days resting on a shady tree. This composition includes calls of some other birds such as a Common mynah, a magpie robin or a hawk. During the singing, they also perform some gestures, which could even attempt to mimic some features relating to the vocals been sung.
Parrots, in general, have an extraordinary ability to express themselves. I always thought I know how they feel. They can show anger as a facial expression. When they are angry, their iris shrinks and puff the face. This ability I perceived as something very significant. These are very emotional beings if they have mastered such a complex expression of an emotion like anger. I think the offence is a little bit complicated than fear. So many birds and other animals can show fear as an expression. Maybe they also express other emotions to each other but not in a way we legible to us humans. The anger hints about a particular personal attitude rooted in the one who puts up the frowning face. And this attitude is quite visible on a parrots face. This observation opened me up to think of animals in general in a brand new light. Namely-my hypothesis was that parrots are a closer realm to human than a caterpillar or a centipede. They suggest that all the animals might have very complex emotional properties, but only not in familiar ways for us. Or not in the ways we expect them to be. But now I think human-ness should be no measure to grade animals either. I prefer to believe human-ness and parrot-ness are two significant spots in the spectrum of beings. Any animal has a kind of view we have, towards the world, but only in terms of its particularness.
Among a few other species, I could mimic their call, which is very intense and loud when we pay less attention. This is also why a crowd of parrots are being called pandemonium. But it is very subtle and full of variations to a closer look. When you learn their special call, you could communicate with them. You could alarm them of danger, and they would respond. You could give a shout asking to forgather to feast. When one travels alone in the far off sky, it makes a different cry than a couple. If you see these travellers, you could just give them a call that you are here, and they come to visit you. I used to feed a flock of 60 to 70 birds every day in my backyard. At the exact time, wherever they are, they start appearing for the feast. Some come alone, while some always come with the same partner. Then there are some smaller groups of 3 to 7 birds. Two of them use to stay whole the day in our back yard on a Kenda tree. They only left at night and returned in the morning. Once they start to realize that you have no intention of harming them, they become very friendly. But still, most of them keep the distance, only wouldn’t fly away in fear. But an old male or a female would come closer to you without any worry as if they are so mature and understand your intentions.
It says the Siddhartha sage (Gauthama Buddha) was incarcerated as a parrot in one of his previous lives. I do not take these stories as facts or rather historical documentations. I prefer to regard them as myths, for myths never were but always are². In the story, two juvenile parrots fall off from their nest during a storm. One of them falls in a cave where a group of thieves inhabit. And the other one was found by a monk who lived in the forest. They both grew up in their new environments and eventually reflected the qualities of their companions. The first one spoke rude words and was aggressive, while the second one was calm and uttered sweet. And of course, according to the story, the second one was the later Gauthama Buddha.
There is something inquisitive about the parrot’s ability in mimicry as something resembles human-ness. We mimic all sorts of things-things we think are cool, mannerisms to gestures and habits to ideas. This sheds new light on the things going viral on our social media and the trends rising and falling like the ocean waves. And even globalization and adapting an ideal form of life as to be desirable and worth living are, in fact, a form of mimicry. Now we all have the same sort of houses, furniture, clothes and books. But parrots seems not to eliminate the diversity by their might. It seems to me they rather appreciate it. Every animal, in a way, reflects some aspect of human-ness. They are as they were feedback continuously played at us of our own qualities. I think animals allow us to objectify particular aspects of human-ness outside of ourselves and to look at them as another. With that remark, I wish to pay my gratitude to these fellow beings stating that I find it amazing to share something familiar with them.
2. James Hillman mentioned this in his lecture on Imagination. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuYg3QKj2K4&t=654s