Living in San Francisco, I have a special interest in earthquakes. I experienced the brutal force of the Loma Prieta quake in 1989 and prefer not to experience it again. As an avian behavior consultant, I am also interested in the behavior of parrots before an earthquake strikes, both as an early warning system and for more information into understanding the hard-wired or instinctive nature of our companion parrots.
In 1994 my Timneh African grey parrot, Jing, demonstrated a remarkable earthquake prediction behavior- a full eight hours before a devastating 6.8 magnitude earthquake in Los Angeles, California.
Jing and I live approximately 450 miles from the epicenter of the Northridge quake. It is far enough away that no humans in the San Francisco area reported feeling the effects of the Northridge quake. The earthquake occurred at 4AM in the morning; however, eight hours before the quake, Jing started her strange behavior. I noticed her staring, as if in a trance, at the ground, sometimes hanging upside down from her perches. She did not want to go into her cage that night; but having no idea what was bothering her, I made her go in anyway.
The next morning she hurried out of her cage and resumed her strange staring behavior for the next few hours. I soon found out about the earthquake and deduced what was happening.
Since then Jing has repeated her earthquake prediction behavior for several small quakes in Northern California. However, when there are quakes with 5.0 magnitudes and below, her attention fluctuates between normal African grey behavior and earthquake alert. This may be because the forces of a major quake produce far more stimuli for her to receive. I can actually predict the magnitude of the earthquake, based on the magnitude of Jing's display. Her behavior prompted me to study other parrots' behavior during earthquakes.
Although no one would think it with her sweet, gentle nature, Jing is a wild parrot who was captured in Africa in 1992. I soon found from my studies that domestically bred African grey parrots gave no forewarning of impending earthquakes. However, all wild-caught Greys, which were observed in the hours before large quakes, responded with the same early warning behaviors that Jing displayed before the Northridge quake. I believe there is strong associative learning passed on from parent birds to offspring that prepares the wild bird to recognize earthquakes as a danger to the nest. Since our domestically bred parrots are not raised by their parent parrots, they miss much of the parental training that characterizes many survival behaviors.
The most distinguishing behavior is the parrot leaning over a cage rim or leaning so far over a perch that it appears to be hanging upside down and staring at the ground. The parrot appears to be frozen in place, so much that you could probably pick it up by the body without any resistance from the bird. This behavior goes uninterrupted before major quakes for as much as eight or nine hours.
The bird tries to avoid going into its cage. This makes sense because the cage is a "trap," rather than a safe place, during an earthquake. A wild bird always has the option of flying away from the earth-connected problem. But birds in cages do not have that option.
It also appears that earthquake prediction among parrots may be "fault" oriented. Earthquakes appear along internal earth fissures called faults. Jing appears very sensitive to all earthquakes located along the San Andreas fault line, where we live, but not to distant earthquakes on other faults in California. Of course, this theory is based on only a few instances, so it cannot be called fact.
OTHER RESULTS AND THEORIES
Of great interest to me is that African grey parrots, both wild-caught and domestic, often "release" all of their tail feathers when trapped in a cage and frightened by earthquake. Both types of the African Greys in the Turkey earthquake disaster lost their tail feathers. Specifically, approximately half of the Greys surveyed after the Barstow quake released their tail feathers.
While this has little to do with predicting earthquakes, the fact that grey parrots are so sensitive that they release or drop tail feathers is important. Cockatiels often release their tail feathers during a night fright. However, not many people have seen their Greys release tail feathers. It appears to happen only to birds that are confined to their cages when an earthquake strikes. There is no evidence of tail feather release before an earthquake. The tail feathers released from the birds surveyed were not "broken" feathers. They were intact feathers that looked as if they were molted.
We do know that Greys are partial ground feeders, as are cockatiels. Tail feather release may be a natural fear response to a ground predator who grasps the parrot's tail. When the bird perceives that it is trapped in a cage during an earthquake, excessive adrenaline production may trigger the release of the tail feathers, much the same as if the parrot were being caught in a predator's mouth.
This article was published in the Spring 1997 issue of the Grey Play Round Table® Magazine: www.AfricanGreys.com ; www.AnimalLOversUnited.com ; www.NaturesCornerMagazine.com ; www.AfricaNature.com
Editor's note: My Greys have dropped ALL of their tail feathers following scary night frights.
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