By Sheila S. Blanchette
Anthropomorphism is quite a mouthful of a word, defined by Lexico (2021) as “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.” Anthropomorphism is commonly seen in our day-to-day lives through social media, television, cartoons, movies, and also, maybe, when we are talking to our own animals.
In the United States, one such example is Smokey Bear, “a campaign and advertising icon of the U.S. Forest Service.” (Wikipedia, 2021). Smokey is an upright black bear dressed in human clothing, including a hat, and carrying a shovel. He is an anthropomorphic image of a bear “to educate the public about the dangers of unplanned human-caused wildfires.” (Wikipedia, 2021).
According to Butterfield et al. (2012), “[a]lthough individuals are unlikely to truly believe that anthropomorphized animals are actually human, anthropomorphism may trigger innate tendencies to treat them as if they were. This possibility is consistent with a growing body of literature that suggests that anthropomorphism alters the ways in which people perceive, interact with, and respond to non-human entities.”
With the example of Smokey Bear, if adults are camping in the woods, they certainly do not expect a wild bear to stop by and talk to them about campfire safety. But they may well remember the Smokey Bear campaign and be more likely to pay greater attention to making sure the fire is completely out before they leave the area. Obviously, they will be hoping to avoid any close encounter with a wild bear around their campfire!
By anthropomorphizing our animals to ‘human-like’ beings, it can help create greater compassion. This can lead to improved animal welfare: for example, in the discussion as to whether a pet is a property item or a sentient being with his or her own emotional life.
Many of us with pet animals know how important they are to us. They provide companionship as well as mental and/or emotional support. Many of us want that deep connection with our animals. We may even refer to ourselves as “pet parents,” while those with companion birds may refer to their birds as “feathered kids” or “fids.” We may celebrate their birthdays, set a plate at the dinner table for them, or dress them up in human clothing.
For many of us, our pets have become an integral part of the family and are included in family photos or family holiday cards. Pets do not just “substitute for human relationships. They complement and augment them. They add a new and unique dimension to human social life.” (Serpell, 1996).
Anderson (2016) notes that “there is an assumption that our companion animals’ interaction and perception of the world is comprehended the same way as a human.”
Misinterpreted reasonings for behaviors are proliferated through social media with posts of “animal shaming,” memes, and videos of humans speculating about, often erroneously, the reason for an animal’s behavior.
And the more something is seen on social media, the greater the likelihood that a confirmation bias will develop. Confirmation bias “happens when a person gives more weight to evidence that confirms their beliefs and undervalues evidence that could disprove it.” (Noor, 2020).
Companion birds have become popular because of their ability to talk, as well as the specific behaviors they can perform. Many of those who share their lives with companion birds will talk about the connection they have with their bird(s).
According to Burmeister et al. (2020), “[t]he owner-bird relationship was found to involve four dimensions: the tendency of the owner to anthropomorphize the bird; the social support the owner receives from the bird; the empathy, attentiveness, and respect of the owner toward the bird; and the relationship of the bird toward the owner.”
In the wild, a parrot’s environment is ever changing. Wild parrots are continuously searching for food, water, and safety. They can fly away from dangerous situations.
Conversely, when looking at our companion birds’ environment, there may be minimal environment changes: food and water can easily be found in the same position in a cage or enclosed area, the bird may never see another member of the same species in their environment, and may never learn to forage for food. And our companion birds do not always have the ability to escape fearful situations.
Unfortunately, such situations can lead to undesired behaviors such as opening the beak, charging, and biting. And when these types of behavior do occur, people may assign anthropomorphic labels, such as “vampire attack bird,” “bad bird,” “killer bird”, etc.
In some cases, when a companion bird engages in an undesired behavior, the recipient takes it personally. They may yell at the bird, or show their lack of understanding by saying something like: “I cannot add a new toy to the cage because I get the vampire attack bird. I have no idea what is wrong with him. I tell him to get over it, it’s just a new toy.”
Such confirmation biases can lead people to believe that the bird is a problem and that there are no solutions. Sadly, anthropomorphic labels assigned to such behaviors run the very real risk that a companion bird will be relinquished or rehomed. Anderson (2016) notes that “[s]ome key areas where anthropomorphizing parrots can be damaging to the human-parrot relationship and avian welfare include diet and behavior.”
The following are some anthropomorphic labels that could contribute to misunderstood behavior:
The concept of dominance in companion birds may have been picked up from an outdated term which, having been inaccurately incorporated into the dog training world of old, has also, unfortunately, been incorrectly incorporated into the bird world.
The term appears to be associated with occasions when the companion bird does not immediately respond to a cue, or when the bird is higher than the person’s head.
According to Martin (2002): “Parrots have no natural inclination to form a dominance hierarchy with other parrots in the wild, or with humans in captivity. Parrots may be moved to show aggression for many different reasons when they are higher than human eye level. However, the desire to dominate should not be considered as one of those reasons.”
Dominance is just a label that incorrectly attempts to “explain” why a companion bird is not doing a specific behavior. But just like dogs, our companion birds are not plotting to take over the world.
The term aggression may refer to behaviors such as an open beak, biting down and breaking skin, or charging at a person while on the cage, in the cage, or on the floor.
When they feel threatened or insecure in a situation, companion birds may step back, their eyes may dilate (pin), or they may move to the back of the cage to denote their apprehension. But without learning their bird’s comfort level and body motions, companion bird owners could be reinforcing undesired behaviors.
Consider the situation when a human hand is introduced into a cage. The companion bird’s eyes may pin and the bird may move away from the hand, or vocalize. If the hand continues to be forced on the bird in the cage, and the bird has no opportunity to escape, he may try any behavior to have that hand removed from his safe environment. This could include showing an open beak or biting the hand.
Once the first bite happens, the person removes their hand and the bird has learned that this behavior, aimed at removing the frightening object, works. Conversely, the person may start to label the bird ‘aggressive’ and lose trust in him. This label could stay with the bird for a lifetime, even if he never bites again.
Companion birds are not violent, but they are prey animals that can learn fear or phobias. As owners, we need to step back, review the environmental conditions, and our own behavior. As with all animals, there is always a purpose to a companion birds’ behavior.
Love is an emotion and may not necessarily be thought of as an anthropomorphic label. For humans, the term love has different degrees, such as:
1) Sexual attraction to a partner (significant other).
2) Strong care or warmth; non-sexual (family member or friend).
3) Warm attachment or excitement; non-sexual; non-living (a movie, a book, a food item).
In the animal world, ‘love’ may exist as a covert behavior related purely to reproduction, i.e. animals pass on their genes to the next generation through mating success, mate choice and survival of young. States Bekoff (2001): “In many species, romantic love slowly develops between potential mates. It is as if one or both needs to prove their worth to the other before they consummate their relationship.”
Many people have a close relationship with their companion animals, and sometimes feel the need for their animals to ‘love them back.’ “However, pet–human relationships are not always successful and differences between human and animal behaviour can lead to lack of understanding and problems where animals do not to live up to human expectations of what a pet should be.” (Fox, 2006).
Again, our good intentions may end up unintentionally creating undesired behavior: for example, immediately letting a newly added companion bird out of the cage to free fly in the house. A good intention, but how is the bird going to be placed back into the cage? Chasing the bird and catching the bird is not a good starting situation. This scenario could end up causing stress for both parties.
Another scenario is if a person takes a newly added companion bird out from the cage and hugs him. In such situations the bird has no choice, and undesired outcomes like biting, or flying away from the person may occur.
Certainly, having a companion bird can provide emotional and mental support and being able to pet the bird can augment the bond even further.
According to Anderson (2016), “[t]ouch is an important part of pair bonding and reproduction in conspecific avian relationships…Petting may be an important part of bonding with one’s parrot, inappropriate touching of parrots can lead to reproductive issues.”
We must be careful not to anthropomorphize certain behaviors, such as a bird preening their person’s hair or mounting their socks, as love in the human sense. Nor should our definition of love be considered an all-or-nothing condition, e.g. a person thinking that their bird does not love them because he will not take food from their hand.
For many of us, our companion birds give us emotional and physical support and when speaking of anthropomorphism, this is not to diminish their character or our care for them.
According to Bekoff (2001), “[u]sing anthropomorphic language does not have to discount the animals’ point of view.” We just need to remember that companion birds are not dogs, cats, or people. Our human-avian relationship goal should be creating a mutual trusting partnership.
States Friedman (2012): “To get your relationship back in the black, reframe the way you think about problem behaviors. They really aren’t caused by dominance, stubbornness or any other abstract concept. Problem behaviors arise when a parrot lacks the skills, the motivation or the positive practice to do the right behavior.”
When a bird is not choosing to do a specific behavior, this is a training opportunity to review. For example, if the companion bird is not stepping up, or recalling, then we need to review the environment and create smaller incremental steps in the training sessions to help increase consistent behavior and lead to success.
We can change our behavior by taking the time to understand our bird’s behavior, and avoiding force or pushing him into a situation that is uncomfortable for him.
If we take the time to train our birds using a force-free methodology based on choice and train at our bird’s pace, a wonderful human-avian bond and trust can be created.
States Friedman (2010): “To understand behavior, our main focus should be on observable behavior, not vague labels or intangible constructs. Be aware that information is exchanged in every interaction we have with animals; thus, every interaction is a teaching opportunity. Next time you walk up to an animal, consider carefully what you want it to learn about you.”
For owners who are having trouble understanding the purpose of their companion bird behavior, I recommend reaching out to those professionals in the field: animal behaviorists, trainers, or certified parrot behavior consultants/trainers.
When someone has a dog with a behavior issue, they would, ideally, reach out to a dog trainer. Similarly, there are professional companion bird consultants out there who can offer assistance, explain behavior and dissolve those anthropomorphic labels.
The author would like to dedicate this article to Dr. Patricia K. Anderson.
Anderson, P. (2016). The Human-Avian Bond. IAABC Journal (2)
Bekoff, M. (2001). The Evolution of Animal Play, Emotions, and Social Morality: On Science, Theology, Spiritual, Personhood, and Love. Journal of Religion and Science 36(4) 615-655
Burmeister, A-K., Drasch, K., Rinder, M., Prechsl, S., Peschel, A., Korbel, R., & Saam, N.J. (2020). Development and Application of the Owner-Bird Relationship Scale (OBRS) to Assess the Relation of Humans to Their Pet Birds. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 10
Butterfield, M.E., Hill, S.E., & Lord, C.G. (2012). Mangy Mutt or furry friend? Anthropomorphism promotes Animal Welfare. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (48) 4 957-960
Fox, R. (2006). Animal behaviours, post-human lives: everyday negotiations of the animal–human divide in pet-keeping. Social and Cultural Geography (7) 4
Friedman, S. (2010). P-A-R-R-O-T Do Tell! Best Practices for Teaching Animals. PsittaScene
Friedman, S. (2012). Back in the Black – Rebuild a Bankrupt Relationship. Bird Talk
Lexico. (2021). Anthropomorphism. In Lexico
Martin, S. (2002). The Anatomy of Parrot Behavior. Presented at the Association of Avian Trainers Conference Monterey, CA: August 2002
Noor, I. (2020, June). Confirmation Bias. Simply Psychology
Serpell, J.A. (1996). In the Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationship, p.143. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
Storyful Rights Management. (2019). Turkey Halts Traffic on New Hampshire Road So Others Can Cross [Video File]
Wikipedia. (2021). Smokey Bear
Pet Professional Guild: Find a Professional
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2021, pp.46-50. Read the full article:
About the Author
Sheila Blanchette is an IAABC certified parrot behavior consultant/ trainer who has operated her own companion bird training company, Heart of Feathers Education & Training, in Haverhill, Massachusetts since 2015. She conducts in-home and online companion bird behavior consultations. Her love for birds began when she received her first red lory in 1995 and she joined the American Lory Society. She began volunteering at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and formulating her desire to improve the understanding and welfare of companion birds. She then began her study of avian behavior and applied behavior analysis and started reaching out to animal rescues in the New England to offer assistance with companion bird education and review companion bird cases. In 2017, she was named chair of the Quaker Parakeet Society Rehome and Placement Program, which includes coordinating the surrender and adoption of Quaker parakeets throughout the U.S., organizing and educating volunteers, and facilitating the foster program.