Parrots are deeply intelligent. But do we understand their emotions?
The profound story of Harpo the cockatoo gives us insights on trauma among captive birds.
How well do you know your pets? Pet Psychic takes some of the musings you’ve had about your BFFs (beast friends forever) and connects them to hard research and results from modern science.
ONE AFTERNOON several years ago, a Moluccan cockatoo named Harpo arrived at Midwest Avian Adoption & Rescue Services in St. Paul, Minnesota. As Galiena Cimperman sat quietly with him and scratched his head, the bird started to talk.
This was perfectly normal. Harpo, like others of his species and the parrot family to which it belongs, was a very vocal creature and gifted mimic. Cimperman, the sanctuary’s executive director, was accustomed to him keeping up a semicoherent monologue of under-his-breath babble. But a long while after their first meeting, he shared something unexpected.
“I hate this bird,” Harpo said, loudly and clearly. He repeated it twice more. “I hate this bird. I hate this bird.”
Harpo had certainly heard that insult before, likely in unpleasant circumstances. But what did the cockatoo mean by it? According to Cimperman, the words didn’t have the same significance for him that they would for us; Harpo was repeating the sounds, not using them as language. But that doesn’t mean the outburst was insignificant.
Cimperman believes the phrase reflected traumas the cockatoo experienced earlier in life and that uttering them was part of his recovery. “I’m hesitant to say, because I don’t have any scientific backing on this,” she explains, “but I think he was probably working through stuff.”
Her diagnosis of Harpo—and many other residents of MAARS, one of 100 or so sanctuaries in the US that provide lifetime homes to abused and abandoned parrots—indeed comes without a seal of scientific approval. Although there’s plenty of research on parrot memory, problem-solving, and communication (the cognitive sophistication of some species is likened to that of human children), the birds’ emotions are largely unstudied.
That makes the relationship between parrots and people all the more difficult. The birds’ intelligence, physiology, and social nature often makes it difficult for them to flourish in captivity—yet there are more than 50 million parrots in households and zoos worldwide. Many are ultimately dumped at overwhelmed rescue operations, where volunteers like Cimperman have to piece together their pasts to help them find solace in the present.
As for whether the animals’ suffering can lead to psychological trauma—defined as an ongoing emotional response to an intensely distressing event—there’s even less research on that than on their feelings. But between their emotions and their excellent long-term memories, they do possess the cognitive capacities necessary to experience extended trauma.
One of the only scientific papers about parrot trauma, in fact, emerged from a collaboration between MAARS caretakers and Gay Bradshaw, the psychologist and ecologist best known for identifying PTSD in orphaned elephants who witnessed their parents and elders being killed. Presented more than a decade ago at a conference of avian veterinarians, the paper describes how parrots at the sanctuary frequently meet the criteria for the disorder.
What Bradshaw learned is that the birds undergo intensely distressing experiences, beginning in most cases at birth. Unlike parrots in the wild, whose parents provide close, attentive care from hatching through fledging, commercially bred individuals often start life in isolation. They receive little attention except for intermittent tube feeding.
“I really think their whole lives are, in some form or another, traumatic,” Cimperman says. “The way people raise them is completely absent of everything they should have.” In a review of standard commercial breeding methods, bird vet Michelle Curtis Velasco likened them to the infamous Romanian orphanages where, in the near absence of human contact, infants went on to develop severe behavioral disorders.
Then, at an age when their wild counterparts meet other young flock members while continuing to receive parental instruction, fledgling parrots enter a human home. They have evolved to live in large groups, but as pets, just one or a few often-absent people become their entire social world. These situations are intrinsically fraught; even well-meaning guardians may ignore or punish their parrots after tiring of unwittingly powerful bites and earsplitting cries for company. Sometimes keepers are not so well-meaning, and the situation devolves into full-blown abuse.
The birds are ill-equipped to cope, says Cimperman, and stress is magnified by helplessness and an inability to escape. Many parrots, especially the larger ones, either have their wings clipped to prevent flight or never learn to fly at all; they lack the sense of security that mobility provides.
Little wonder that some parrots arrive at MAARS with symptoms of severe psychological disturbance: tics like picking their feathers out and even wounding themselves, extreme aggression, hypersensitivity to everyday noises, repetitive movements, incessant screaming, constant agitation, catatonic unresponsiveness, and so on. In extreme cases, parrots have stayed in their cages for years, avoiding eye contact and trembling when humans approach.
When seen in people, those behaviors raise concerns about PTSD. “I know this hasn’t been borne out scientifically to the degree that it should be, but I don’t know what else it adds up to,” Cimperman says. So MAARS adapts insights on human PTSD into its treatment regime. New arrivals are initially kept separate from the flock; as they begin to acclimatize, grooming, eating, and showing curiosity about their surroundings, caretakers work with them to develop a sense of trust in humans.
It’s important that the birds feel control over their own lives, says Cimperman. “So much of a parrot’s life in captivity is without choice,” she says. “We try to give everyone a sense of free agency as much as possible, closer to what they would have in the wild.” Later they may be exposed to reminders of past trauma—the sight of a garbage bag, for example, for a bird delivered to the sanctuary inside one—as they learn to regulate their feelings. The process may take months or even years.
In Harpo’s case, the details of his early life are murky. He had one guardian before arriving at a sanctuary in Texas; there Harpo killed several birds and left volunteers with wounds requiring medical treatment, at which point MAARS took him in. “We couldn’t have him out for more than five minutes. He would just kind of implode and start flying at your face or attacking anything he could get his beak on,” Cimperman recalls.
By the time Harpo said, “I hate this bird,” she had worked with him for three years. He still had episodes when “he would just kind of blank out and kind of go into attack mode,” but he was improving. He felt safe around Cimperman, and she saw that utterance—delivered with the pinned-back feathers and slit-eyed glare that signify intensely negative feelings—as part of the process. To her, it signified a mental reenactment of his past. “I think they store a lot of stuff that’s happened to them. And to be able to move forward, there has to be some getting out of stuff,” she says.
Erin Colbert-White, a comparative psychologist at the University of Puget Sound in Washington who has studied how African grey parrots use words, says she’s open to the possibility that parrots experience PTSD. She cautions, however, that Harpo’s invective is difficult to parse as a recollection of his trauma because we don’t know the context in which he first heard the disparaging phrase. “It’s such a complex conclusion to draw that I would want to somehow be able to study it systematically. I’m not saying it’s not true. I would just have more questions. The scientist in me says, ‘Proceed with caution.’”
Colbert-White also warns that the expectation that another species will “experience psychological disorders in ways that humans do is a big assumption.” Rigorous, without-a-doubt scientific evidence may be unobtainable, though; it would require inflicting trauma on captive parrots in controlled conditions. “There’s no way to ethically reproduce these sorts of situations,” Colbert-White says.
Even granting that uncertainty, just the possibility that parrots experience psychological effects that resemble humans’ adds to the urgency of protecting them—not just in captivity, notes Cimperman, but also in the wild. Half of all parrot species are declining, and one-quarter are threatened with extinction, yet they receive relatively little conservation attention. Thriving populations are frequently persecuted for the wildlife trade or in the name of “pest management.”
By the end of Harpo’s life in 2021, nine years after his arrival at MAARS, he was one of the friendliest feathered guests there. He ran to greet people and was positively joyful. “I think who Harpo was and who he ended up being were completely different birds,” Cimperman says. “He was literally unrecognizable.” And whatever he’d meant when he said “I hate this bird,” he had stopped saying it.
We hope you enjoyed Brandon Keim’s column, Pet Psychic. Check back on PopSci+ in June for the next article.