© Howard Voren
One of the first things that children learn about birds and animals is that they all fall into one of two categories: Some are considered domesticated, and some are wild. In the distant past, it was quite simple to determine in which category they belonged. Those that were normally kept on farms were domesticated. Those that roamed free in the jungles and forests were wild.
Centuries passed without any changes to these categories. So much time had passed that a large portion of humankind seemed to believe that these "lists" were created by divine edict. Beyond the occasional songbird, the only animals that could be afforded a spot alongside man were those that either fed or protected him. Only in modern times have common humans gained the leisure time and expendable income that kindle the desire for nonhuman companions that do not fit into the utilitarian mold.
We have now entered a new era — a time when people seem determined to discover the human compatibility factor of every creature that seems even remotely social. This has drawn quite a bit of criticism, and, in many cases, it is warranted. I'm sure that we have all heard the criticism, "They're wild animals, and no matter what you do, they will always be wild and untrustworthy." One must remember, however, that all the living things on earth were at one time wild. One must also remember that it was man who transformed these creatures into their domesticated forms. It is the act of bringing wild creatures into the fold of human society that lays the groundwork for domestication. How well they mesh with society will determine whether or not the effort will be fruitful. At this point, everything is relatively straightforward. Beyond this point, modern humans have a major problem.
The problem is the determination as to when a creature may be considered domesticated. At what point may we be so presumptuous as to eliminate a creature from the "wild list?" When are we permitted to add our newfound friends to a list that has historically been the exclusive realm of the barnyard animals? This act becomes so much more difficult as we, in our zeal to protect the environment, begin to wrongly equate "natural" with all that is good and "unnatural" with all that is bad. As with many dilemmas, it is often helpful to consider the true definition of things.
What Does "Domesticated" Mean?
The definition of domesticated as applicable in this case is the "adaptation to life in intimate association with and to the advantage of man...by modifying growth and traits through provision of food, protection from enemies, and selective breeding during generations of living in association..." (Webster). The wild horse and jungle fowl are both excellent examples of creatures that were brought along this path. Through human intervention, they have evolved with lightning speed into myriad shapes, sizes and color patterns. These creatures were molded in these directions not only to serve their original utilitarian purposes; they also were and are being molded to satisfy humankind's desire to behold something beautiful.
It is important to note that both the original horse and the jungle fowl share something in common that is of great importance: They were both examples of evolutionary failures. Millions of years of evolution yielded only one basic horse and one basic jungle fowl. In modern scientific thought, evolutionary success is equated with speciation and colonization. Those life forms that evolved into many different sizes, shapes and colors (different species and subspecies) are the ones that may be considered successful. This speciation was created to a large extent by an ever-changing environment. These environmental changes were not only brought about by climatic change but by the colonization of new territory.
When taking all of this into consideration, it becomes apparent that domestication is, in fact, manmade evolution. An act that seems to reach its highest point of success when man works with evolutionary failures.
At a time in history when a highly vocal minority is determined to sway the collective minds of society by shaming all into believing that all that is wild should remain wild, it would be advantageous to move some of our more beloved companions to the domesticated list. I, for one, would immediately nominate the parrots.
If the parrot were permitted entry to this "exclusive" club, we would be protected from all the rules and regulations that are being force fed to those who choose to keep and breed the "wild." In order to facilitate this, we must allow the parrots to satisfy the definition of domesticated.
Where Do Pet Birds Fit Into Our Society?
First we must decide on the niche that this bird will fill within the framework of our society. That niche would be as a companion. We must now decide what evolutionary changes we should induce in order to make them perfect for this position. These changes would most certainly involve size, color, intelligence, personality and longevity. Their size should be varied. They should not be too small nor too large. Somewhere between one ounce and four pounds would nicely satisfy most peoples' desires. They should sport a vast array of beautiful colors and patterns to make them pleasing to the eye. They must posses a high level of intelligence so they can interact with us in a thoughtful manner, as well as talk to us in our own tongue. They must exhibit the personality traits of affection and loyalty. Also, if it's not asking too much, it would be nice if they had the ability to live as long as we do. (It would be nice if we didn't have to watch our beloved "Lassie" die three or four times in our lifetime.) If we were able to evolve the parrot to satisfy all of these criteria, it would certainly be the foremost example of successful domestication in the history of the world. In fact, since they would be living in our homes, it would be great if their droppings had no foul odor. With these attributes, the parrot would be the ideal domestic companion.
Unfortunately, there is one major problem. All of this has already been done! The problem is that it has been done naturally. The parrot is an example of one of the most successful creatures to have evolved on the planet. Has it evolved to fill all the criteria of the perfect companion for humankind without our intervention as part of some divine plan? Are parrots God's chosen creatures? Does this situation exist in order to ensure that we bring all of them into the "ark" before the "flood of civilization" destroys their habitat? Should the parrot, at this or some future point in time, be considered domesticated? This depends on whether you consider "domesticated by Nature" an acceptable alternative.