Ever wonder if a parrot can make itself go deaf from its own screaming? Do parrots hear better than humans? Do parrots have particularly sensitive hearing? Read on to learn about parrot hearing!
I'm surprised to learn that some people think parrots have sensitive hearing. I have observed this mindset a few times over the years so I would like to address it in greater detail.
For example in my "Shot My Parrot Dead" trick video on youtube, there have been numerous viewers objecting to me yelling at Kili when pretending to be mad. Vicky Abramowitz commented, "Cute trick aside. Why do you two knuckleheads have to shout? Parrots have sensitive hearing. Try to keep that in mind."
At least they don't think the parrot is actually dead like a thousand other comments but they are still misinformed about avian hearing. For those still questioning if the parrot really dies or not in the video, then be sure to check this analysis video.
I had researched bird hearing years ago when I began taking my parrots flying with me in airplanes. While it is recommended that people, and even dogs, wear hearing protection while flying in small piston airplanes, there is no option for parrots. I was interested in whether or not there was a danger to my parrots. I learned that it is not. However, with little information on the subject and continued discussions, I decided to share with you what I have learned.
So how does bird hearing compare to human? Not as good. First of all, birds lack a certain organ that helps funnel in sound waves into the ear cavity. What could that be? Oh yeah, external ears! Birds do not have those floppy things sticking out of their heads. I guess so much for my idea of making bird-earrings or glasses (birds have excellent vision so I guess they won't be needing them anyway). Birds lack external ears to be more streamlined for flight so that is already one hearing advantage that they lack.
Not only do birds lack external ears, their internal ears are actually covered by feathers. You can't normally see their ears and could almost think they don't even have any. However, when the feathers are parted, we can in fact see that birds do have ears. The feathers covering the ear openings help keep wind out while flying and reduce wind noise similar to a fluffy mic muff cover. However, this adds a further reduction in sound that reaches the bird's ear.
As we travel deeper inside a bird's ear, the next difference we can find is a more primitive ear structure. Like their reptilian ancestors, birds have just one inner ear bone called the columella (analogous to the stapes bone in mammals). One of the defining features of mammals that distinguishes them from reptiles is the evolution of a 3 boned ear structure featuring the malleus, incus, and stapes ear bones. This 3 boned ear structure allows mammals to have more sensitive hearing, particularly in the higher pitch ranges.
For this reason, parrot hearing is limited to the 200 Hz-8.5 kHz range while humans can hear in the range of 31 Hz-19 kHz. That means your parrot won't hear the deep bass notes and high pitch cymbal crashes in your music. However, they can hear just fine across the human vocal range.
Ornithology 3rd Edition Frank B. Gill, Page 193
What this chart shows is that birds, with the exception of owls, need sound volume to be louder in order for them to be able to hear it in the first place than humans do.
This means that a parrot cannot hear a watch ticking, a pin drop, or leaves rustling because they simply are not loud enough for them to be able to hear. Since their hearing drops off precariously in the high pitch range, this also means that high pitch sounds have to be very loud for them to hear them at all. But don't worry, before you start speaking loudly to your parrot like it's your grandfather, parrots can hear normal human speech at 70db just fine! A quiet whisper just meets their minimum hearing threshold.
Now what about noise, how much does it bother them? Not nearly as much as it bothers us! Besides the somewhat reduced hearing ability in birds, they are better equipped to handle noise. This should be no surprise to parrot owners. Why is it that when a parrot screams in your ear, you can go temporarily deaf in that ear while a parrot can scream all day without causing hearing damage to itself or the other parrots near it? It turns out that it has to do with the inner ear hair cells.
Hair cells detect the transmission of sound vibrations and turn them into an electrical signal that gets processed by the brain. Extreme noise or prolonged exposure to loud noise in humans damages these hairs and causes hearing loss. However, in birds these hair cells regenerate and return full hearing ability! "Most NIHL [Noise Induced Hearing Loss] is caused by the damage and eventual death of these hair cells. Unlike bird and amphibian hair cells, human hair cells don’t grow back. They are gone for good." (National Institute on Deafness).
And this all makes perfect sense. Humans as all mammals, evolved from small nocturnal ancestors who relied heavily on hearing for navigation and predator avoidance. This explains why birds have superior vision but mammals have the better hearing.
But what about parrots being able to hear and learn to mimic sounds so well? Just because parrots learn to mimic speech and sounds exceptionally well does not mean they have the best hearing apparatus. This is mainly coming from their brain. Parrots live in a different time scale than we do. They can see and hear quicker than we can! They can distinguish more sounds or sights per second than we can. Similar to how blind people can learn to listen and distinguish sounds better, parrots can take the lesser sound they hear and do more with it!
If loud noise bothered our parrots, they would try harder to evade that noise and also wouldn't be so noisy themselves. If my yelling act bothered Kili too much while making the Shot My Parrot Dead video, she would have simply flown off to a quieter part of the room. People don't give the animal enough credit for having the sense to be able to take care of itself. Saltyspirit made a good observation in the video, commenting "It's amazing how he doesn't mind him yelling."
But before you get the impression that I'm suggesting that you yell at your parrot, think twice! Not because I'm worried for your bird's hearing. No, it will be just fine. Because of your hearing! Giving your parrot the impression that you're into yelling too could encourage the parrot to join in. You on the other hand will experience hearing loss and unlike your parrot, your hearing won't restore itself.
In conclusion, parrots have less sensitive hearing, less hearing frequency range, better hearing perception, and innate protection against hearing damage. So use the Parrot Wizard approach to quieting your parrot down or invest in a good set of ear plugs.
During my recent visit to Phoenix Arizona, I took Kili & Truman in to see Dr. Driggers. His is the first exclusively Avian and Exotic veterinary clinic in the country to have a CT scanner. He took some time to tell me about the machine and how it works.
It's really fascinating. The scanner takes 720 images in the span of about 30 seconds. The computer reconstructs these images into a full 3 dimensional display of the animal. The doctor is able to look through the organs and bones without ever hurting or cutting the animal open in the process.
I decided to get Truman scanned to check on how his prior injury has healed and also to check just in case for new ones because he is very accident prone. So they gassed him for a few minutes to anesthetize him. They need the animal to lay perfectly still during the capture so that all of the images line up for the final 3D image. Then they laid Truman out on the bed of the scanner. A team of several vet techs works together to make the process go as quickly and smoothly as possible. They hyperventilate the bird prior to the scan and then stop the breathing during the scan. It's like holding your breath to go underwater. Everyone gets out of the room while the scanner is going. The moment it stops, they were already getting a stethoscope on Truman and checking his condition. Once the scan was complete, they used a hand pump to get him breathing room air again.
The analysis of Truman's bloodwork and CAT scan showed him to be healthy and organs in good shape. A 3D look at his skeleton showed that his original injury has healed well and is barely visible any more. On the other hand it also revealed that he has a slightly crooked keel and that he has busted his tail at some point. Nonetheless, these do not currently affect him but it's good to know what's going on. It is also reassuring to know that the previous injury has not worsened and that his organs look healthy.
I am glad to see the new CT scan technology moving along so well. I bet in a case where there is organ issues, something lodged inside the bird's gut, or a hard to locate injury, being able to use this CT scan technology will drastically improve avian medicine.
Since the Avian and Exotic Clinic is the first in the country to have a CT scanner and since Truman is their first ever Cape Parrot to be scanned, most likely this is the first and currently only 3D CT scan of the internals of a Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus fuscicollis). Check out this video of Dr Driggers explaining the technology and Truman, the first Cape Parrot to get CT scanned, showing us how it's done:
Kili, Truman, and Rachel have been settling in the bird room together well. I have been getting back into flying them for exercise. For now, I'm just having them fly in the bird room.
All three parrots are at ease with each other and know their own perches well. They all already know their names and only fly when called. But now they are mixing it all together.
Flying three parrots for exercise can be quite intense. I alternate my attention between the birds. Each bird flies to receive food. While two parrots are busy chewing their reward, the third already finished and is ready to fly. This leaves at least one parrot ready to go at any time.
This routine not only keeps things moving for me - it sure does take a while to get three birds to fly enough to go through an entire meal - but it also gets a rivalry going between the birds that keeps everyone trying. If one of the birds gets lazy and doesn't come, I will simply move on to the next. The next bird is happy to have a sooner opportunity to come. Meanwhile the bird that didn't come gets punished by missing a turn and having to wait for the next chance to come around. This has been extremely effective and virtually eliminated disobedience.
In the past, flight training just one bird at a time, I would encounter a lot of frustration when the bird wouldn't come. I have limited time to spend on training, so when the bird isn't coming, the session will either take longer or the bird won't be exercised as much. Whenever the bird would stop cooperating to look around or worse yet just sit there for no reason, I would be powerless at that moment to keep things moving. But now with three birds training together, there is always a bird or two that will pick up the slack for the others. This keeps me from just standing around waiting for birds to resume cooperation. But not only that, it makes the lazy bird(s) realize that others are getting their treats! This fixes things in a hurry.
When the birds finish chowing down their food reward, they are attentively waiting for the next opportunity to be called. I occasionally mix up the order of the recalls to keep them on their toes. On the rare occasion that the wrong bird comes, it receives no food and is just sent back to the perch. They realize quickly that it is a 100% chance they won't receive a reward if they come when I call another, so they learn to stay put unless called. This is important when there is a bunch of birds so that they don't interfere with each other.
Starting out, Rachel was definitely the weak link. While Kili and Truman would come reliably from years of experience, Rachel would often not come or take too much time. Since the added competition of the other birds, Rachel's success has more than tripled! She is almost as good as the others. She has made years of solo improvement in a month with the added competition. I think the improvement was so huge because Rachel got both a dose of example as well as rivalry! She got to see how well the other birds do and how much they get rewarded. She realized that this is the way to be if you're a bird!
Another interesting improvement came in Truman. Truman has always been second rate to Kili in everything. If Truman flew 50 recalls, then Kili flew 100. When Truman improved to being capable of 100, Kili was at 150! Because he could never accomplish being better than her at anything (at least training wise), I don't think he ever really tried. But when Truman realized he could be better than Rachel, he was all over it! Truman became much more attentive and quick to respond. On the other hand, Rachel is now close on his tail with her improvement so I hope to keep this competition going.
There's no doubt that Kili is simply the best. Her mantra is anything you other birds can do, I can do better. Even when she's training solo, she'll work as hard as the other birds would in a competitive environment. But when the other birds are trying too, Kili can keep flying reliably even after she is completely full or not even hungry at all in the first place. I'm pretty sure that I could get her to fly as much as the other birds without any treats at all. She is just so competitive and has to be best!
Oftentimes toward the end of the flying session I am trying to compensate the bigger birds with extra food. Kili is already too full and clearly done eating. Truman and Rachel might have missed a few treats when they were being obstinate. Kili got every single one. So just to get the others to fly as much as Kili, I need to park Kili and give them a chance to catch up. Well, Kili keeps begging to come so I call her but don't give treats. I know she is full and can't/shouldn't have more. As long as the other birds keep coming, she does too, even when she is obviously getting nothing. But she plays a good model and it helps me keep the others going till they finish.
It is important to note that getting or training more birds is not necessarily going to improve things for other people. If you have a bird that is uncooperative or bad at training, I would first focus on your training techniques and the birds motivation. Only when that bird without doubt knows what it is doing, does it right most of the time, and does an overall pretty good job is it ok to think about training along another bird. Competitive training isn't a solution to poor training/motivation. Instead it is a superlative booster for already effective training.
So, check out this video of Kili, Truman, and Rachel's morning flying routine:
It has been a tumultuous few years between adopting Santina, inheriting Rachel through marriage, and having sick birds all over the house. But now, for the first time in over a year, Truman gets reunited with the flock.
The last time Truman had seen Rachel (not counting a brief distant encounter at the wedding), was while I was birdsitting Rachel after the NYC Parrot Adventures Group outings at which I met Marianna. When Marianna moved in with Rachel, we opted to keep Rachel separate while the original three (including Santina) were dealing with health problems in the bird room. Every time we medicated the three, it would appear that Kili and Truman would do better but Santina's condition would return and then some weeks later, everyone else was back to square one.
We decided to experiment with quarantining every bird from each other. This was very difficult and time consuming with hand washing or showering between visiting each bird. After several medications and a lot of time passing, Kili and Rachel improved. Santina was still doing badly and Truman was a bit questionable. So, we had to juggle birds around and do a lot of sanitizing in order to get Rachel and Kili together in the bird room and Santina and Truman quarantined separately.
This September, I rehomed Santina to Lori in Pittsburgh. This was an effort to harmonize my own flock while getting Santina and Lori a wonderful pet situation. Mostly, Truman was doing better but now and then he was still symptomatic. We ended up giving him one more round of medication before going any further.
Without contact with Santina and since medication, the birds appear to be doing well so now it is time to have Truman united with Kili and Rachel. We thoroughly cleaned and sanitized Truman's cage, replaced all of his toys/perches with new ones, and were ready to move him in with the other birds. Just one more thing to do, to give Truman a really thorough washing. Marianna got him really soaked and clean before reintroducing him to the flock.
This is not the first time Truman was reunited with Kili. There was the time Truman was lost for a few days. Also, there were times that Marianna would take Truman to her home for some days at a time. So, it was not a massively surprising situation for Kili, but after going so long without him, she certainly displayed a lot of excitement. Rachel was curious but mainly indifferent. For now he will stay in the same room but a little bit separate during the adjustment period. Check out this video of the Trained Parrot flock reunion:
While I sit at the airport waiting to go home, I recall the experiences I had on my 2016 Europe Seminar series. I would like to share some of my thoughts and experiences about the events and how Europeans keep parrots as pets.
The first of two Seminars was in Germany. It was similar to the first one held last year. People arrived from all parts of Germany and even other countries for the talk. I am in contact with the German Flieger Club throughout the year as I teach several webinar courses to them. So the members of the club are all familiar with each other and parrots. However, many of them had not seen each other in person since the presentation the year before. The new annually held national conference is becoming as much a social tradition as an educational one.
Since Germany is a smaller country, the possibility of having a single national meeting is more possible. Although distant, even the furthest members can reach the meeting in one day's drive. Most of them bring their birds. It's really a lot of fun. The club is growing fast. So fast, that the seminar was at capacity and required simultaneous presentations to fit everyone.
The German approach to parrot keeping is somewhat different than what is typical in the United States. First of all, the parrot industry is much younger than in the US. Therefore finding parrots and good supplies is more difficult. The typical age of a pet parrot seems to be much younger as well. I can't be sure if this is only relevant to members of the club or of the situation nationwide. But, I can tell you that meeting so many parrot owners in the US, it would be inevitable to come across more older birds.
Wing clipping is illegal in Germany like some other European countries. Every parrot you come across is fully feathered. However, just because parrots are fully feathered does not mean they are fully flighted. Because some parrot owners are incapable of keeping flighted birds in their home, the birds end up cage bound and flightless just the same. So although it may appear that banning clipping might solve things, in reality it just changes the mechanism by which parrots are kept flightless. Educating parrot owners and ensuring that people buying birds realize the consequences of a flighted animal are the better solution to simply passing laws.
It seems like everything about parrot keeping is regulated in Germany. There are rules and laws about all sorts of aspects. Some of the laws are logical but many are not. They are clearly created by bureaucrats and not by people who are accustomed to living with pet parrots. The German Flight Club on the other hand is using education as a tool for teaching owners to take better care of their pets. Senior members serve as a model for newer members and provide help.
Parrot keeping seems like a couples activity in Germany. This is both in terms of the birds and the couples owning them. While in the US, it seems that parrots are mainly kept by single people or by one person out of a couple, in Germany it is predominantly a joint activity. Birds are usually kept with an opposite sex mate of the same species or of a similar species. Husband and wife will handle a bird each or trade turns holding both. Parrots are treated more like children and part of the family.
I came across many homemade cages of all sorts. Homemade outdoor aviaries are more common as well. The average cage size appears to be larger than in the US. But just because cages are better, does not mean that parrot keeping entirely is superior. In my opinion, the birds' diets in Europe are inferior to those in the US. Far fewer birds are fed pellets. Although variety of foods are offered, it is inevitable that the birds are mainly chowing down on seeds and not getting ideal nutrition. While parrot keepers' opposition to pellets as being “unnatural” is understandable, the seeds and alternative diets they offer are no more natural to these tropical birds. The problem is that owner-regulated diets are not guaranteed to offer balanced nutrition. Sprouting is much more prevalent in Germany. I was shown how they use a 3 day sprouter that ensures that new sprouts are coming out every single day.
My Seminar talks went well. Because most of the people have already been at it for 1-2 years, we were able to talk about more advanced topics than last year. It is nice to watch the progress and see people coming along. Even people who couldn't lay a finger on their birds a few years ago, were now bringing them to the seminar and able to put an Aviator Harness on them.
Like on my first visit to Germany, the second day was a nature walk with a massive number of owners and their pet parrots on Aviator Harnesses. Much was the same as last year except there were more participants and things went smoother.
I was greeted by a whole welcoming committee when I arrived to the Czech Republic. Unlike with the Germans, I really had very little idea what was going to happen. Not only have I done a seminar in the past with the German group, but the organizers speak English so we maintain direct contact. English is far less common in the Czech Republic and the little bit of communication I had with the organizers was through google-translated emails. The good news was that I had several extra days to spend with the organizers and get to know them.
I was originally contacted by Lukas Ruky nearly a year ago. He contacted me requesting me to do a freeflight course in the Czech Republic. It wasn't practical for me to travel to the one country alone. But when my second seminar in Germany was confirmed, it was a superb opportunity to combine two seminars. Because the initial contact was about flight training and I had little contact with the organizers since, I really was not sure of what I would be presenting at the Seminar. It sounded like an expert group looking for advanced advice.
But as I got to know the people and their parrots, I discovered that in fact parrot training is at it's absolute infancy in the Czech Republic. The organizers took me to 3 different parrot owner's homes so I could get to know them and their birds. Instead of coming across parrot experts, I encountered ordinary parrot keepers that wanted to learn the simple things every owner wants to learn. How to teach the parrot to step up? Not to Bite? Wear a harness to go outside? These are all the topics I am best in and it was no trouble at all coming up with topics for the seminar.
At first I was confused. The translator would tell me the organizers will have me visiting this breeder and that breeder. Then we arrive to their homes and it was just a cage and some usual pet birds. It wasn't until later that it was explained to me that in Czech, they don't have a separate word for breeder and pet owner. Instead it's a universal term similar to “bird raiser.” They use the term breeder both for breeders and the people who eventually keep them as pets.
I was taken to visit the Prague Zoo. The organizers were well connected both with the zoo trainer and the parrot zoologist. We had the opportunity to see parrots and training behind the scenes. I met Franta Susta, the head and only professional zoo trainer in all of the Czech Republic. He shared with me insights about how new the concept of training, and particularly positive reinforcement based training, is in the Czech Republic. Franta, in his 6ft some stature comes off as hulking. But it plays no role in his animal training as he prioritizes the animals' comfort and participation over using his strength to force them. Although an expert trainer, Franta was interested in learning and comparing ideas.
In addition to visiting the zoo, the organizers took me for a tour of Prague. It is a beautiful European city and quickly becoming one of the tourism jewels of Europe.
I would like to mention that I have found the Czech people to be the most hospitable and kind hosts I have ever met. They paraded me in food and gifts throughout my entire stay. The food was outstanding and excessively abundant. It was not possible to give a Czech a single gift without receiving ten in return! They are extremely generous people and a similarity can be seen in the way they keep their pets.
One of the homes I visited was a single room studio. The couple keeps a pair of African Grey parrots in the biggest stainless steel cage available. The cage takes up one tenth of the confined single room space. The cage was spotless, rich in food, and full of toys. Since there are few opportunities to buy good food/supplies in Europe, the owners pay double the normal retail price to get supplies shipped from the United States. So although there was barely any room for two people in the small studio, the birds had everything you could imagine. I found this to be the theme repeatedly. Perhaps these are only the people the organizers chose to show me and not the norm. But even the very existence of people who take such great care already helps raise the standards. I saw as many stainless steel cages in Czech as I had seen in all of the US.
I could feel that the hospitality offered to me extends to their parrots the same! During the Seminar, my challenge would not be to convince people to take better care. It would not be not to clip birds and let them fly. Instead it would be to not spoil them so much and give the parrots opportunities to earn their rewards. I thought that people who are used to raining their parrots and visitors and gifts would be resistant to the idea, however, the methods I shared were very well accepted. It was exciting not just to share my methodology but to see people who are eager to accept and apply it as well!
Smoking is much more prevalent in Europe and especially the Czech Republic. Smoking is terrible for the people's health but even more detrimental to the birds. I worry about the birds' health when people smoke around them whether at home or outside. Birds have very powerful respiratory systems to be able to breath effectively for flight. This makes them more prone to poisoning through the air than other animals. The thing I would hope to so improve the most is for people to abandon smoking for their birds' health and their own.
All kinds of members of the parrot community came to the seminar. From absolute beginner pet bird owners to breeders, trainers, and local experts. It was a diverse and eager crowd. And although translation hindered the pace, it was exciting to present information that people were being introduced to for the very first time. On the other hand, there were several participants who had independently purchased and applied my book prior. It was wonderful to hear that the techniques were already working for them.
During the Seminar talk, I predominantly relied on demonstrating with a toy parrot. I could not bring my own parrots overseas; most of the participants birds were too shy and insufficiently trained to be able to make clear demonstrations. There was no point for me, as a stranger, to scare their novice birds. However, on the second day for the workshop, we had some bolder birds. It was an opportunity to show the previously talked about concepts in action. We demonstrated the effective use of target training to teach a parrot to step up, learn the turn around trick, allow touch, grab, and petting, and learn to wear a harness.
So as my 2016 Europe Seminar series comes to a close, I head home knowing that the presentations made a difference. It certainly wasn't enough time to share everything I know. But it was enough time to educate and inspire many people to understand the kind of relationship they could have with their parrot and the initial steps to head in that direction. I am glad to be able to help exchange ideas and methods between continents so that the best methods can proliferate borders. We are beginning to form an international cooperation and community of caring pet parrot keepers.
I am available for seminars in 2017. Contact your local bird club, store, or breeder that is capable of hosting an event to consider inviting me for some talks.