My life is full of milestones, of new beginnings, both in my personal life and in the rescue. This year my son made the big change from elementary school to middle school. It was a change I have been dreading, not really being sure how he would do. We spent time over the summer talking about it and how he should manage his day, and of course the teachers spend a lot of the first week helping the sixth graders adjust to new expectations. I am lucky that he likes routines and schedules, and as soon as he understands what is expected of him, thrives in new situations. I can also communicate with him (at least until he hits his teen years) and he can tell me of his worries and fears. But when a new bird comes into the shelter, how do I begin to help them adjust to the sudden world of change in which they are placed?
Some handle it better than others. As prey, once they become familiar enough with their surroundings to not fear predators, they settle in and do just fine. But not all of them learn to trust humans again. For some of them, the bond of trust has been broken and it is difficult to reestablish it. Sometimes they continue to mourn the loss of their human caretaker. While they eat, and enjoy time out of their cage, and seem to be aware of their surroundings, I have the feeling that they are just biding their time, waiting for their caretaker to return. While it isn’t quite as pronounced as the abandoned yet expectant look of hope you see on dogs, it is there, in the way they react to me. I am acknowledged when I hand them a treat, give them a bath, or otherwise tend to their needs. But when I am busy doing something else they retreat into their own world, often tucking a head beneath a wing to nap and wait.
The last couple of weeks in August are always busy and this year especially it seemed there was a lot to do. It is a time of new beginnings and fresh starts, and I like to actually make goals and plans for the next year now. December, with all the activity never seems like the right time for me, and I think it is hard to actually start a new year out right if you haven’t already spent some time reflecting on the past year and thinking about the new one. For nearly everyone who has spent decades in school, fall is a time of change. For those of us who live in northern climates, there is the very real visual change in the color of the leaves. The days are much shorter too, and so it seems necessary to become a little more efficient. Every fall I feel compelled to buy new notebooks and pencils for myself, and even in the years between being in school and when I had to purchase supplies for my son I loved to walk through the rows of school supplies. I always bought my son fresh crayons and colored pencils, even if we had a box at home that was new enough to take to school. There is just something about starting out the school year with all new supplies.
This year I felt nervous myself on the first day of school. It was hard to drop him off and know he has to learn the intricacies of opening his locker, figuring out where to sit at lunch, and getting to his classes on time. My son goes from having one teacher and being in one classroom for most of the day to having seven teachers and seven different classrooms, not all of which are within easy walking distance. In the afternoon he has to sprint from one end of the building to the other, and walk through the eighth grade hallway to get to art class. Entering such dark and uncertain territory as the eighth grade hallway is a significant fear for a sixth grader. I spent the first week of school watching the clock, and living his nervousness vicariously when it was time for him to walk that hall. But he is doing fine. His biggest complaint about his new routine was no recess. I think for him he was mourning the loss of pure childhood and play, recognizing that he is entering a world where, although there is still time for fun and games, eight hour work days with no real break is now going to be the reality for most of the rest of his life. The transition to middle school is significant for me too, for it is the beginning of the inevitable shift of my child growing up and eventually leaving home to start his own life. It is what you want as a parent and also don’t want, in just about equal proportions.
But all of this we can talk about, and work through the changes together. It is not so easy when your destiny on this earth is to be a parrot that has become part of the pet industry. Their social structure is gone. If they were removed from the wild, they were removed from an intricate system of structure and routine, a system where they too learned how to grow up and start a life of their own. If they were captive bred, they never knew this structure, but probably feel a longing in their hearts they don’t understand. In my opinion, it is that longing that is the root of all behavior we, as caretakers, find objectionable. Biting, screaming, overbonding to one family member, is simply the manifestation of a completely foreign life and one they have no psychological capacity to internalize. Like people, some parrots do just fine in new situations. They are able to adjust and cope. I find in general it is species specific (try saying that out loud three times). While some are able to adapt to change, others struggle. I don’t have any real answers for the ones that struggle. I only hope I can help them a little on their journey. I can’t explain the why to them, but I can offer them a new beginning.