Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Parrots and Peoples

by Richard Heinberg

MuseLetter 156 (April 2005)

The new documentary film by Judy Irving, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and the book of the same title by Mark Bittner, have few obvious implications for global war or peace, resource depletion, global economic meltdown, or any of the other grim subjects I have primarily focused on in these pages for the past few years. Partly for that very reason (we all need a break from time to time), but mostly because of the evocative, thought-provoking qualities of both the film and the book, I thought I would devote this month's issue to an appreciative review and some musings about avians, freedom, and civilization.

Bittner, a native of Washington State, moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s with the goal of pursuing a musical career. His dreams were dashed by the ugly realities of the commercial music scene, and he ended up homeless. Refusing to seek regular employment, he subsisted for years on handouts and odd jobs, eventually landing a care-taking position in a small house on
Telegraph Hill, leaving him plenty of free time. A devotee of spiritual literature and of Beat poets, Bittner imagined himself one day being a professional writer and living in wild nature - somewhere among rivers, mountains, and trees. Yet now he found himself stuck without money in a starkly urban environment, and without any motivation to improve his financial situation by the conventional means. One day, while reading an interview with Gary Snyder in the collection The Real Work, Bittner came upon the following passage:

The city is just as natural as the country, let's not forget it. There's nothing in the universe that's not natural by definition. One of the poems I like best in Turtle Island is 'Night Herons', which is about the naturalness of San Francisco.

Bittner writes: "There was an implication for me that I caught immediately: If I were really sincere about knowing nature, I'd start right where I was living". So he began observing birds. In 1990, Mark Bittner by chance saw four wild parrots; in the following weeks, more appeared. He was intrigued by them: Where had they come from? He had been paying attention to the pigeons, sparrows, and seagulls around the rambling gardens near his cottage, but was unable to summon up much real interest in them. The parrots were different. They were obviously non-native, and were "always good for a laugh".

They would fly into the garden with their nutty urgency, a united, harmonious group. Then, the instant they landed, fights would break out. Sometimes while fighting they'd get tangled up in each other's feet and fall from the lines, struggling to disengage before both birds crashed to the ground. They were affectionate with one another, too. Pairs had long preening sessions, at the end of which they'd puff up their feathers and sit cheek to cheek.

Bittner's book is essentially a diary of his interactions with the birds during the following years; Irving's film, though necessarily containing far less detail, conveys the visual and auditory impact of parrots playing, fighting, flying, and interacting with their adopted human friend. And friendship is a good term for what develops. Bittner is keenly aware that most North Americans experience parrots only as caged birds, but he gains a deep respect for this flock's freedom. Bittner himself has, after all, eluded the domesticating process entailed in getting a regular job and working for a living. He himself has just enough of the experience of freedom to understand why the parrots relish their wildness and vigorously repel any attempt to cage or tame them.

Yet both Bittner and the flock exist in a state of paradox: they are wild animals within a largely domesticated environment. They are non-natives who are doing their best to make their way in an ecosystem for which they have not evolved. They gratefully accept whatever sustenance they get via the kindness of strangers, but only on their own terms: they insist on maintaining control of their own existence. The parrots, mostly cherry-headed conures (also known as red-masked parakeets), have come from South America. There, presumably, they had been trapped in the wild. A few may have briefly been kept as pets before escaping (or being deliberately turned loose by their frustrated "owners"); the rest were born and fledged in the wild - though not in their native habitat, but in the gardens and parks of San Francisco.

Bittner finds himself committed to a strange vocation. He is an uncredentialed ethologist and amateur ornithologist. And his commitment is considerable: he spends hours each day with the parrots, feeding and observing them. He takes copious notes; he saves up money for film so that he can photograph them; and he occasionally resorts to soliciting donations from the neighborhood when a parrot falls ill and needs the attention of a veterinarian. The parrots become his closest comrades.

* * *

Throughout the book and film we get to know individual birds and learn their stories. We are witness to their courtships, alliances, disputes, births, illnesses, and deaths. Among others, we get to know Connor, the blue-crowned conure, who, though somewhat of an outcast because he is of a different species than the rest, maintains a dignified yet kind presence; Tupelo, a victim of a virus that recurs each year in the younger birds, whom Bittner takes into his home, nurses, and becomes deeply attached to; and Mingus, an escaped cherry-head pet who joins the flock and then takes up residence in Bittner's cottage, eschewing life on the wing. Mingus has the infuriating habit of biting but displays the lovable trait of bopping his head up and down in perfect time whenever Bittner plays the guitar and sings. The most striking aspect of all of this narrative is having a window into parrot society, and into the emotional lives of individual birds. Here's a summary paragraph from Bittner:

Parrot society is complex, but I don't think it is so different from ours. It's a community made up of pairs and individuals. Mated birds squabble with one another and with other couples. Certain individuals have it in for each other. Most couples are in it for the long term, but some get divorced. Although the flock functions as a single community, nobody makes decisions for the flock as a whole. When a parrot thinks it's time to leave a foraging spot, he starts up a conversation about it. If the flock leaves, it's a community decision. Often, some birds will dissent from the general consensus and stay put.

The book brims with charming anecdotes about bird behavior. Just one: When a lone little budgie ("Smitty") briefly joins the flock, nearly all of the other birds shun it. Connor, however, befriends the parakeet, letting it eat crumbs he drops and even occasionally holding a piece of food with his foot so that the much smaller bird can bite into it. This is behavior that is difficult to explain in strict Darwinian terms: what was Connor getting from the relationship? Surely not enhanced survival chances or reproductive success.

* * *

As I savored Bittner's account of the wild parrots, I couldn't help but think back on readings I've done over the years about wild humans - that is, about descriptions of hunter-gatherer society, or life among tribal peoples at the time of first European contact.

Take for example, this passage from Baron de Lahontan conveying the statement of a Huron from the end of the seventeenth century: "We are born free and united brothers, each as much a great lord as the other, while you are all the slaves of one sole man. I am the master of my body, I dispose of myself. I do what I wish. I am the first and the last of my Nation ... subject only to the great Spirit."

The analogy is inescapable: people who live a civilized life are like birds in a cage. As long as we stay within well-defined social bounds (and assuming we are lucky enough to have been born in a wealthy parasitic society, rather than a victimized poor one), we are rewarded with all we need - cheap food, as well as comfort and convenience in a myriad of forms: television, shopping malls, glossy magazines. We have our seed cup, perch, mirror, and toys. What more could a bird - or human - want?

Moreover, life in the wild is unpredictable. There are hawks waiting to snatch us (life as a wild parrot, thrush, or finch is sort of like living in an apartment building with neighbors who happen to be serial-killing cannibals). But of course, we civilized humans have managed to extinguish just about all the large predators who might otherwise make off with the occasional child, sick cousin, or doddering grandfather. The only predators we have to worry about now are other people.

Like wild parrot society, wild hunter-gatherer society could be fraught with conflict. Fights evidently arose over sexual jealousy, food, and etiquette. According to Raymond C Kelly's calculations in his book Warless Societies and the Origin of War, the typical rate of homicides among even the more peaceful foraging societies was in the range of 40 to 90 fatalities per 100,000 persons per year. Compare that with the homicide rates of modern America (5.5 per 100,000), Germany (1.1), or the Netherlands (.75). In civilized society we have police, laws, courts, and prisons to keep the lid on interpersonal mayhem. However, we also have occasional wars, which can be horrifyingly lethal (one in every fifty individuals then living died during World War II; the American Civil War had a similar fatality rate). If I were living in Iraq these days, I might find the statistical likelihood of violent death in hunter-gatherer society decidedly preferable to my own odds.

For whatever reasons, most of us modern humans are like Mingus the parrot: we choose domesticated life. We like the cheap food, the controlled environment. Yet while life in the wild isn't easy, it has an ecstatic quality, one that Bittner notes among the parrots, and one that early explorers observed among the Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians. It is a quality that cannot survive the routines of either civilization or the cage.

So how did we arrive at civilization in the first place? It's a long story, but one worth rehearsing periodically so as to remind ourselves why we traded away our freedom.

Every competent hunter-gatherer knows how to survive in the wild; therefore if anyone in the band starts to lord it over his comrades, they can simply pick up and leave. No one can threaten them with starvation. The situation differs in an agriculture-supported city. As we developed food production (horticulture, then agriculture - presumably because we had gotten so good at hunting, and our populations had grown so dense, that we could no longer easily support ourselves except by planting and harvesting), the result was seasonal surpluses, which provided an incentive for raids, and thus for political organization to protect from raids (or to organize them).

Individuals found themselves in a social pyramid composed of peasants who produced food and paid tribute (a portion of the crop was collected and stored by a managerial elite); a middle class composed of various specialists (soldiers, accountants, traders, artists, artisans, lawyers, scribes, and religious functionaries); and the decision-making leadership comprised of kings and queens and their families.

Thus with full-time division of labor came a new form of political organization: the state. On one level, it justified itself by managing seasonal surpluses and redistributing them in times of famine. But at the same time, the state was a protection racket: in the words of anthropologist Stanley Diamond, it still constitutes "That element within society that claims a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence". Soldiers, police, prison guards, and executioners represent the business end of state power, without which the rest of the edifice could hardly function.

As cities took up the space formerly occupied by untamed nature, they diminished the survival options of wild people. And so individuals gradually lost their ability to live outside their artificial, controlled environments. Of course, to this day everyone is still ultimately dependent on nature, but now only indirectly so: we look to the social system for our sustenance; we chase money, not rabbits.

This disconnection from wild nature was especially acute in those who were not members of the producing class - the soldiers, managers, priests, poets, and kings who didn't work in the fields all day, and who therefore didn't have to pay such close attention to weather, soil, birds, wolves, deer, and gophers.

At first, these specialists and overlords made up a small minority of the population. In an agrarian society, surpluses are small and the work of food production must be done by muscle power, so that lots of human labor is needed. But with the industrial revolution, fossil fuels replaced muscle power, and so ever more people could be "freed" from agricultural work. The
middle classes burgeoned, while the number of producers declined.

And so here we are today, in a human world dominated by money, news, sports, entertainment, employment, and investment - a world in which nature appears as something peripheral and mostly unnecessary. Nature is merely a pile of resources, a segment of the economy; at best something to be preserved for aesthetic or sentimental reasons.

But in domesticating plants and animals we also domesticated ourselves. Certain personalities were selected for, others discouraged. The abilities to conform and to delay gratification were selected for (at least among the producing and middle classes); the insistence on autonomy and freedom was discouraged. Meanwhile we domesticated other animals with similar objectives in mind: we wanted docile pets or willing field workers.

Again: we are like caged birds - except that our captors are others like ourselves. In effect, we have built our own cages.

* * *

When Bittner occasionally comes across a parrot that he knows was hand-raised, he notices the difference between it and its wild cousins. At one point he is offered the "ownership" of a captive blue-crowned conure named Bucky. He immediately accepts the bird, hoping to have found a mate for Connor - a solitary member of that species who has led a lonely existence in the red-crowned flock. Bucky turns out to be another male, but never mind: both birds are at first delighted to be in each other's company. Yet gradually their relationship sours: Bucky is unsuited to life in the wild, while Connor is loath to give up his freedom. Bittner comments on Bucky's "chronic possessiveness":

On rare occasions, [Connor] would spend the night out with the flock, but he always returned the next morning. Bucky didn't want Connor going out at all. Whenever I reached into their cage to get Connor, Bucky would bite my hand and then pin Connor up against the cage wall and bite him and preen him. His meaning was intuitively clear: "Don't go, I love you". It was a neurotic, clinging kind of love that I think only a caged bird could have.

On the subject of freedom versus capitivity Bittner writes:

While I don't believe hand-reared birds should be released - they would not survive - I have a big problem with people who think they have a right to put a healthy wild bird in a cage. Birds cherish their freedom just as much as human beings do. The sick parrots that I brought inside always screamed in terror and despair at the moment of capture. Each time a parrot is taken out of the wild, a family - the members of which feel real affection for one another - gets broken up.

If only European pioneers had harbored similar sentiments about the wild peoples they encountered.

* * *

As Bittner points out in his book, ornithologists are unsure about the descent of parrots, which have no clear relatives among other birds and must have diverged from some unknown common avian progenitor many millions of years ago. There are about 330 recognized parrot species in the world (most are endangered) - birds large and small, displaying nearly every color of the rainbow. All share the defining characteristics of hooked bill, the presence of a cere (a band of flesh above the upper mandible), and zygodactylic feet (two toes point forward, two backward).

As all parrot lovers know, these birds are eerily intelligent and endlessly entertaining. They are natural clowns, spending much of their time in play and other social behavior.

Captive parrots can, of course, be trained to talk. But there is some controversy as to whether their speech is necessarily limited to mere mimicry, or whether it can develop into genuine communication of concepts and abstractions. For many years Dr Irene Pepperberg of the University of Arizona (The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey parrots, Harvard University Press, 2002) has worked with an African grey parrot named Alex who has learned to describe unfamiliar objects, ask for what he wants, and verbalize his own emotional states in English. Alex has become famous for his abilities, but critics have suggested that he is merely a fluke. So Pepperberg and her graduate students are using their methods to train other parrots to do the same things. They are also using rigorous controls to avoid cueing the birds via the "clever Hans" effect. Alex and his avian colleagues evince numeric cognition, categorization, and word comprehension, among other abilities previously assumed perhaps to exist among the great apes, but certainly not among birds.

"What's this?", asks Pepperberg, holding up a triangular object that Alex has never seen before. "Three-corner", he mutters.

"What color?"

"Yellow", he answers correctly. Later, after a barrage of similar tests, he tires of the interrogation. "Bye", he says. "I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow."

* * *

In San Francisco the cherry-headed conure is a non-native species. What would happen if it proliferated there? That's a fair question. After all, look at what has befallen North American songbirds because of the starling, another bird that was introduced by humans - in this case, from Europe (Mozart was reputed to have had a pet starling of which he was particularly fond). Starlings crowd out the natives in cities and suburbs across the continent. One could imagine a local ecological horror story in the case of parrots as well: suppose the San Francisco wild conures were to thrive, finding niches throughout the West Coast. Might they displace towhees, goldfinches, or hummingbirds?

That's not likely to happen: few introduced species are as successful as the starling. And, if the conures of Telegraph Hill do manage to survive, they will achieve a certain poetic justice. After all, it's not as if parrots are entirely strangers to North America: the continent once had its own native parrot - the Carolina parakeet - which was driven to extinction in 1918 by farmers and sportsmen who shot the birds by the tens of thousands. From a parrot's point of view, the conures' colonization of San Francisco's urban ecosystem might be seen as making up for lost territory.

Of course, the most threatening non-native species of all is Homo sapiens. The vast majority of successful colonizing species have arrived in their new habitats because of deliberate or inadvertent human action. And humans themselves - by killing "pests" and "weeds" and encouraging the growth of the few plants and animals they (we) have domesticated - take up the ecological space of thousands of creatures.

Invasive species typically don't follow the local ecological rules by which native species have evolved to live. Relatively undisturbed ecosystems tend to reach a climax phase, characterized by balancing predator/prey feedback loops that keep population fluctuations within a moderate range and give rise to the appearance of widespread cooperation among species. Invasive plants or animals upset these balances and often compete ruthlessly with natives. Invaded ecosystems have to adjust to the intruders, and this can take years, decades, or centuries.

We humans have upset habitats everywhere we have gone, starting in the Pleistocene. Twenty or thirty thousand years ago we managed to get pretty good at making and using weapons like spears and spear throwers, which enabled us to kill big animals such as mammoths and mastodons. As we spread around the world we killed off one species of megafauna after another. Only after staying in particular places for millennia did we learn the local limits and develop cultural forms that enjoined us to conserve. Evidence suggests that the Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians didn't start out as intuitive ecologists; they learned that attitude as the result of trial and error.

* * *

I've been spending a lot of time in airports and airplanes lately as I travel far and wide to spread the gospel of Peak Oil, so I get to spend less time at home. I do get to meet interesting people, but the wear and tear is undeniable. Indeed, much of this essay was written on planes and buses, in airports and hotels.

These are about as "unnatural" as any environments one can find. Here it is difficult to take Gary Snyder's words, quoted above, seriously: there is little or no evidence of wildness in the conventional sense to be found in any of these places (when I was in the Tucson airport in early March I noted some wayward sparrows chirping anxiously in the rafters of the ticketing lobby: while it was a pleasure to hear and see them in that sterile environment, I feared for these lost creatures). Of course, in the broadest sense, as Snyder argues, everything people do is "natural", including building and inhabiting airports, since people are no less biological organisms than are bacteria, scorpions, possums, sparrows, or parrots. At the same time, the distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" does make sense at some level. At the core of the category of the "unnatural" is the human social construct described above - that of full-time division of labor in a context of agricultural production and city-building.

Why have no other animals built equivalent civilizations? Why no parrot skyscrapers, symphonies, or supermarkets? For better or worse, we humans have certain unique genetically endowed abilities. We are omnivorous; so, like other omnivores (crows, raccoons, rats, cockroaches) we are clever and adaptable. We have a descended larynx that enables us to make a wide variety of vocal sounds; hence language. And we have opposable thumbs that enable us easily to make and use tools. With language and cleverness we get the abilities to generalize and to plan ahead. Combine those abilities with ever-evolving tool systems and the results are formidable.

While parrots can be trained to speak in context, most linguists would say that this is still qualitatively different from human verbal communication. And of course it is. But contemplating what that difference is and how it might have arisen brings up the questions: Did humans develop language and tools because they are special and different from other animals? Or did humans become special because they developed language and tools? Most people assume the former, but doing so just seems to widen the gulf between ourselves and the rest of nature.

* * *

It is easy to dislike human beings in the aggregate. Hearing about the endemic torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the global destruction of species (about a quarter of mammals and birds are now threatened), or any of a thousand other outrages, one can catch oneself hoping that Earth will simply be rid of our kind soon.

But Bittner reminds us there is more to humans than this. He tries to remain an objective, detached observer of parrots in order to gain credibility, but eventually he has to admit to himself (and his readers) that the reason he spends time with the birds is that he loves them - and not merely in some abstract spiritual or aesthetic sense. It is love that keeps him interested in the daily lives of specific birds with which he forms life-long bonds. It is love that keeps the flock together, love that enables it to grow. Human society is similar: without affection, we couldn't overcome our competitiveness long enough to accomplish much of anything.

Moreover, it is our ability to extend this bond of empathy, compassion, interest, and fellow-feeling across species barriers that may offer us one of our last opportunities for escape from our self-designed cage, and one of our last chances to veer away from our ecocidal path of universal destruction. This sounds pretty sappy, I know. We've all heard it a million times: it's love that gives us meaning and that makes life worthwhile. And people are capable of extraordinary displays of love in a myriad of forms.

Maybe it takes a flock of parrots to drive the point home.

At the end of the book and film we are treated to a pleasant surprise: Mark finds a girlfriend. He also becomes a successful author and the subject of a documentary film. He has achieved his dreams - though by a long, circuitous, and initially unpromising route. He has stuck to his vision and his principles. He has (mostly) avoided the cage.

Both the book and the film tell us as much about ourselves as they do about parrots. We are a peculiar species of ape, evidently not closely related to birds (genetically, we're closer to voles than to parrots). Yet in the conures of Telegraph Hill we see reflections of ourselves - as we are, as we were, and as we may once again be. And we are reminded just how lonely it can be to confine our attention solely to the solipsistic human matrix, when so much more is going on around us.

Mark Bittner's web site:

Bill Totten


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