Sensory Input

Birds convey a wide range of input for human senses.  Perhaps that is why they are so deeply cherished in different ways in many parts of the world.

The most obvious is the beauty of the feathers, the vibrant orange or red, the shimmering green with black edges, or the flash of scarlet at the end of a subdued gray body.  Even chickens present a variety of beautiful colors in their feathers.  And if we look at the really dull brown birds, we suddenly realize there is a masterful stroke of blending and hiding in the color.

As if their natural colors weren’t spectacular enough, most cage birds have mutated into sea green, turquoise, sunny yellow, or blue to violet.  Albino, lutino, creamino, cobalt, melanistic, silver, grizzled, fawn, pearl, and so on, all delight the eye of some observer.

The way that birds see colors is astonishing, too!  Their visual range goes into the ultraviolet, beyond human abilities.  They use UV colors for social interaction, mate selection, and navigation.  Some parrot species are not thought to be sexually dimorphic, that is the males and females appear identical to human eyes.  But thanks to the UV spectrum, they know who is what.

Sound is a two-edged input with birds.  Canaries and wild song birds can delight us with melodious song, parrots can entertain with the silly things they say and their gift for timing.  But an unhappy bird can scream, a crow can caw incessantly, and lonely  peacock can rend the calm for miles around.

It’s wonderful, however, when you get used to the sounds made by your cockatiels or budgies or conures.  On a daily basis, especially in the summer, Mike and I will be driving along and hear a very familiar bird sound.  We exclaim in delight, “Finches!”  Or “Cockatiels!”

I’m giving a nod to the sense of humor under sound, because my Congo African grays are certainly masters of comedic timing.  They are special needs birds who came to us when their original owner passed away.  At night, Blind Io often makes sounds like the overweight pugs who lived in his original house.  Their whimpering and snuffling are spot on.  Both parrots like to imitate cockatiels, love birds, and canaries, and occasionally the tea kettle just starting to whistle.  Once we were explaining the parrots’ special needs to a visitor, and when I said, “Bo has no toes,”  Io crooned sadly, “Oh-oh!”

Bo is champion at being the alpha bird.  She asks the others, “Are you okay?  Got water?”  and when she is tired of their noise, “Alright, alright, knock it off!”

Touch is a sensory joy for me with birds.  The softness of their feathers, the sleek, gossamer quality, contrasts with the roughness of their legs and feet, and the hard, sharp beaks.  The complexity of the beaks and the difference between a finch beak and a hook bill are marvelous.  And there is something deeply touching about a tiny zebra finch viciously biting you.  The courage in that little spotted breast is amazing.

A different sort of touch is the feel of a bird sitting on your shoulder or hand.  I started out with cockatiels as “shoulder birds” and thinking that was a good weight for a parrot.  When I acquired Sunny, my sun conure, I thought she was half again as heavy as the cockatiels.  But according to the average weight charts for birds, a cockatiel weighs about 90 grams, while a sun conure gets to 100 to 130 grams.  My current companion, is a love bird, and while he seems to be in-between the two, he’s actually the lightest of the three at 45 to 70 grams.

Taste has immediate conjuring powers of all the chickens I have feasted on.  In high school, I was in the 4H program for a year, because it was supposed to be the fast track to being a veterinarian.  The class project was to raise a bunch of chickens to a certain size and weight, and then have a barbecue.  It was a big success, maybe not so much for the chickens, but I had a good time.

I’ve left smell to the end, because there are, again, two very different types to look at.  Birds might not smell as bad as a dog yard that hasn’t been cleared or a cat box that hasn’t been scooped, but do not think they aren’t close behind.  African grays have some of the stinkiest poop ever invented.  And finches have fast metabolisms that require a quick intake and just as quick output.  It gets really bad if the cage cleaning has been unavoidably delayed by a day.

On the other hand, which I have washed thoroughly, some birds smell very sweet and warm and wonderful.  Our language isn’t full of many words to describe scents, but I will give it a go.  While working a booth for Hookbill Hobbyists at the Del Mar Fair some years ago, I met a young lady who had brought her cockatiel for people to handle and enjoy.  The bird’s name was Chicken.  The young lady loved Chicken, and confessed that she loved to hold him up to her nose and give him a good sniff.  And she was right.  Cockatiels smell very nice!

Many native Australian birds produce a powder down feather that breaks off tiny bits and sifts through the plumage.  It acts as a conditioner and water proofing for the feathers.  The powder can cause illness in humans who are sensitive to it.  Bird-breeder’s lung is primarily caused by exposure to bird droppings, but the feather powder contributes.

A sensory feast on the wing, birds are incredible treats to behold.  And if you are lucky enough to share your home with some, you are lucky indeed.


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