After a whole year of watching Mika enjoying head scratches, Stewie has decided that he’s going to allow me to touch him. Not just touch him, but rub his neck and pinch the keratin off his new feathers! Pin feathers are itchy and uncomfortable and, in the wild, parrots engage in allopreening to help each other get rid of the hard substance that protects the feathers as they grow in.

In our homes, where they don’t have other parrots to preen them, they have two options: either live with the icky pin feathers and wait for them to fall off on their own, or let the humans help.

For two years, Stewie has not wanted me to touch him. He was all about preening me — trying remove moles from my neck, pulling on hairs, removing errant schmutz — but has not wanted my hands on him. Don’t get me wrong, Stewie is very affectionate. He gives me kisses, lets me smother him with kisses, crawls into my shirt… but he let me know that he doesn’t like hands coming at him or touching him and I always respect his personal space. Not respecting his no-touching rule would mean getting bitten, but more than that it’s a matter of maintaining trust and open communication. No hands invading where they aren’t wanted.

But for some reason in the last couple of days, Stewie has welcome neck and head rubs, scritches and help with his pins. Not sure why I even tried — I stopped trying to touch him long ago — but something about how he was all fluffy with his head down just said “scritches please”. After all, that’s the position Mika adopts when she want scritches.

Breaking pin feathers is a delicate operation; even if you’re careful, you could rub that feather the wrong way, which hurts. But Stewie has been very tolerant and patient with me.

Because of the fact that Stewie is kind of a bitey bird, I’m careful to watch his body language very carefully and always stop long before I think he’s getting antsy. I only break up two or three feathers at a time, at most and then take a break. When Mika is done with scritches, she just pushes me away, but I think that if I were to irritate Stewie he’d let me know a little more forcefully.

This foray into helping Stewie preen is a huge leap for us. These types of breakthroughs… with a bird who was aggressive and distrustful for months after I got him … is really the best part of working with parrots.

Scritches for everyone!