As curator of Tropical Waters at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, Lee Newman has spent plenty of time in warmer climates observing and researching the animals there. And it’s on these trips that he noticed something about the behaviour patterns of not just fish, but also birds that populate the Amazon. Every evening, flocks of parrots fly overhead to roost for the night, and always in an even number. “They pair up,” Newman says.

Long-lived birds with complex social needs, parrots are biologically driven to form strong social bonds. This can make them appealing companions for people who keep them as pets because they come to see their human family as their flock, but it also leaves them vulnerable if they are separated from their human caregivers.

Such was the case with Cosmo and Gino, two of the parrots in the Vancouver Aquarium’s Amazon Gallery, who were raised in human care. Gino, a double yellow-fronted Amazon, came to the Aquarium from the former tropical gardens at Victoria’s Crystal Garden and Cosmo, a blue-fronted Amazon, was formerly a pet. (Cosmo’s situation is a very unique one for the Vancouver Aquarium as we do not normally take in surrendered pets.)

After years relying on humans for their primary companionship, both birds had developed a tendency to look to humans, not other birds, to satisfy their need for social bonds.

Parrots such as Gino have incredibly complex social needs and form lifelong bonds with caregivers in the absence of other birds.

“They tend to adopt people, including our staff members,” Newman says. While it’s normal for animals at the Aquarium to develop relationships with their caregivers, Newman says for relational birds like parrots, viewing humans as their flock can lead to distress, when, invariably, employees’ shifts change, or they move to different departments, or even different jobs.

“We can’t really afford to have them adopt people,” he says.

So, in an effort to help Cosmo and Gino develop more natural behaviours, a social experiment is underway.

For the last several months, Aquarium staff have been trying to get Cosmo and Gino more familiar with one another in the hopes they’ll eventually form a social bond that more closely resembles the relationships they would experience in the wild.

“What we want to do is lessen their dependence on people by trying to get them to associate with other birds,” Newman says.

So far the experiment has been trial and error. To begin, staff put the parrots’ perches closer together, but when Gino began sneaking food from Cosmo’s dish, the feeding protocol had to be reassessed, Newman says. Staff have also positioned their roosting cages next to one another so they share a wall at night.

Aquarium staff are hoping Cosmo will learn to view other birds, not humans, as primary companions.

Aquarium staff are hoping Cosmo will learn to view other birds, not humans, as primary companions.

“We have seen a positive response so far, but as with all animals we are closely monitoring their behavior,” says Aquarium biologist Steffany Chwedoruk. Guests walking through our Amazon Gallery might notice the pair engaging in social behaviours such as such as allopreening — mutual preening that plays an important social role for birds — and vocalizing.

However, Chwedoruk cautions that those who keep exotic birds as pets cannot simply add another bird to their flock to satisfy parrots’ complex social needs. “Each situation is different and parrots introduced to one another often do not get along.”

In fact, those considering acquiring parrots should think very carefully about the commitment they are making — and the impact the pet trade has on wild bird populations. Collection of wild birds for the illegal pet trade is one of the biggest threats facing wild populations, while exotic bird sanctuaries are often overwhelmed with pet-owners surrendering birds that they cannot care for.

Newman admits it’s early days still, but he is hopeful that with life expectancy for parrots of up to 60 years, Cosmo, who is 19 and Gino, who is about 15, will become friends.

“These birds require steady, longterm relationships because they’re wired that way,” says Newman.

Here’s hoping Cosmo and Gino will come to find that in each other.

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