Xmas reveals two unexpected characteristics of the parrots of Chez Ctein.
The first is that they don't care a fig about the Xmas tree. That's been consistent behavior amongst all the psittacines we've owned—three conures of varying types and sizes, one African Gray (the famous and previously-fabled Elmo), and too many budgies to count. All of them, to a bird, have totally ignored this bizarre artifact that appears in their midst. They're not frightened by it, they're not attracted by it, it's like it doesn't exist.
This is exceedingly abnormal bird behavior. Describing birds as "high-strung" is understatement. Their little nervous systems are stretched C-above-high-C taut; they are ever on the lookout for anomalies that could indicate danger (or opportunity). A sudden unexpected noise, a motion caught out of the corner of their eye, something in our hands when we approach the cages that they don't expect to see, even a piece of paper, any of these things can cause a panic reaction. There are old parrots and there are bold parrots; there are few old, bold parrots.
This is true even of Elmo, who has to be the most mellow, chilled-out African Gray I've ever known. It's most assuredly true of Corrigan, our yellow-side green cheek conure, who Paula and I are firmly convinced freaks out at dust motes. Screeches and alarm calls issue from him aperiodically for no reason that we can discern. Whatever danger he's frequently alerting us to is invisible to us.
Objects above birds have major threat potential. A strange object at ground level may be a prowling or slithering predator, but a strange object overhead is assuredly bad news.
So, come Xmas Eve, there are Paula and I hauling the Xmas tree into the living room, carrying it high over our heads so it won't bump into furniture or objets d'art, abruptly setting it upright barely a foot or so from Corrigan's cage (and only a few feet from the other cages), where it towers to the ceiling, and covering it with bright and shiny objects.
There's no reaction from the birds whatsoever. They act as if it isn't even there. Elmo may be accustomed to Xmas trees, as we don't know the habits of his previous owner. The other birds have never seen one before. They are not repulsed by it, nor are they attracted to it once it's decorated. It is covered with all sorts of shinies, which are normally like catnip to a parrot—but it doesn't exist. Apparently an Xmas tree is too utterly alien for their avian brains to even register. It's the strangest thing.
The second surprise is that Elmo is a serious opportunistic omnivore, with distinct carnivorous tendencies. Most parrots are opportunistic omnivores. It is generally thought that their carnivorous inclinations lean towards bugs and grubs and maybe the occasional mollusk, which are, to them, like modestly mobile small fruits and nuts. I have doubts.
Like many folks, I have the tradition of cooking a big turkey Xmas dinner with all the fixings, and then we eat it for the rest of the week until we're finally sick of it. This is Elmo's most favorite meal. The cranberry sauce, yams, wild rice, succotash, it all rocks. But without question his absolute favorite is a turkey (or chicken) thigh or wing bone.
Elmo digs into bones with gusto. He doesn't care so much about any meat on it. Instead, he goes for the joints and end caps, which he devours. Lots of fat and calcium, I suppose. Then it's onto the main course. Skillfully, he cracks the bone, peels away chunks of it and eats out the marrow inside. He works his way down it, cracking and peeling off chunks, eating out the marrow, until finally it's done. Then he requests another one.
I can tell from watching that this is instinctive behavior. There are ways that he acts around eating artificial foods that make it clear that he is adapting natural behaviors to novel edibles. This doesn't look like that. He knows exactly what to do with the medium-sized bone and dispatches it efficiently. I am quite convinced this is normal, wild behavior for him.
So what do African Grays eat in their natural environment? I don't know. Lizards? Rodents? Smaller birds? Do they scavenge the kill of other animals? None of my books have anything to say on the subject, but I am am inclined to think that when we have jokingly referred to him as our "little feathered velociraptor," there may have been more truth in that than we knew.
Strange objects appear in the air above us on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by James B: "Ctein, I am glad to see you are still with us—Mike's post of yesterday entitled 'Ctein's Corollary' had me panicked for a moment, as I glanced and mistook the word for 'coronary.'
"By strange coincidence, the BBC today published something on a fossilised velociraptor's last meal, which was, I'm sure you have guessed, a pterosaur's wing and bones. Perhaps Elmo is merely reverting to the call of the wild?
"An old Jack Russell dog, owned by a good friend of mine certainly did react to Christmas trees. In his first year while being house-trained he was taught to go outside and do his business under a tree in the garden. You can imagine the pup's confusion when a tree was brought into the house and placed on a grass-green carpet. He thought he was doing the right thing...."