Canadian Parrot Symposium

Canadian Parrot Symposium



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Demystifying Pet Bird Behavior

by Chris Davis

Are birds really "mean", or "unpredictable", and why have they gotten that reputation in the first place? Does your little feathered friend sometimes drive you crazy? Well, don't be surprised if the feeling is mutual! How would you like to be constantly misunderstood, with unrealistic expectations heaped upon you? No one likes being misunderstood, yet, among bird people, the most frequent causes of disillusionment with their avian companions are the direct result of having unrealistic expectations for their little feathered friends. Birds are very reasonable creatures and usually, once the world is seen from their perspective, any anger and irritation felt by their resident humans evaporate, to be replaced with a heightened sense of appreciation and awareness for the little fellows.

Traditionally, humans have been egocentric in their choice of companion animals. Their idea of a good pet is someone who is quiet, affectionate, obedient, does not bite, and is accepting of all human flaws and foibles; however, that fits the description of the perfect dog! Unfortunately, they forget that dogs have been genetically "programmed" for approximately ten to fifteen thousand years, or twenty to thirty thousand generations, to be their companions! Humans think of cats as being feral creatures; however, they have also been genetically altered to be companion animals, for approximately five thousand years, or ten thousand generations! Then, along comes their little feathered friends who have been carefully "programmed", since the time of the dinosaurs, for periods of time estimated to range anywhere from forty million to over one hundred million years to be WILD animals. . . and, humans expect them to behave like the perfect dog! It's no wonder that they find people so confusing and difficult to live with! On top of all this, we have a creature who, emotionally, functions at about the level of a two to three year old child (jealous, possessive, self-centered, controlling); and, intellectually, functions, with regard to visual exercises, on a much higher level. . . perhaps that of a four to five year old human child!

Even domestically bred birds are still, genetically, wild animals who have been socialized to humans! Because of their unique characteristics, birds have absolutely no concept of being pets, or companion animals. . . they can only interact with humans, and other animals in the household, as they would with other members of their flock! Pecking order, not size, is the predominant factor. . . which explains those situations in which the little rampaging amazon parrot regularly terrorizes the family doberman. See how intricate a bird is? This is NOT a simple creature. . . but it is a reasonable one, provided you understand the world from its point of view.

How do these characteristics affect a bird's behavior in the household? Like humans, some birds are naturally easy-going and content with life in general; however, if the little guy is feisty and perceives itself to be a dominant member of its flock, then it will naturally feel that it has the right to do whatever it wishes, at any time it pleases. This can sometimes lead to certain types of screaming or biting behaviors. For example, if the bird is the "boss" and its humans (the subordinates) decide that they can leave the room whenever they wish, the "boss" will often scream with displeasure at their violation of the "flock's" rules! How about another example: if the bird is the dominant member of the "flock" and a stranger or disliked member of the family invades its territory, the bird has the "right" to bite either that person ("get out of my territory"), or its transporting "pet" human ("'feet, do your duty', let's leave this place NOW"); and, frankly, is astonished if it is admonished by the "subordinate" (guess who) for doing so! It simply doesn't make sense, "politically" speaking.

There are many ways in which people show the bird that it is dominant. The most common method is the simple practice of keeping the bird in places which are too high . . . including the shoulder! In the wild, the dominant individuals occupy the highest areas of the trees, with less aggressive individuals accepting sites in the lower branches. If the bird's human keeps the bird in an area which is too high, it will usually happily accept its dominant role and perceive the person as being subordinate. Imagine the consternation on both sides when the subordinate person tries, for example, to put the bird back into its cage when it doesn't want to go and the bird retaliates. . . if the person becomes angry, the bird may become just as angry as a result! After all, it IS the dominant member of the flock. How can we easily remedy this particular variety of dominant behaviour? If the human keeps the top of the bird's head at mid-chest level most of the time, the bird is lulled into the comfortable feeling of being a baby bird nestled in Mom or Dad's breast; and, it will usually begin to interact from a gentler perspective. This, in turn, gives the person the loving, "parental right" to implement changes in the environment which would never have been allowed by the dominant bird! This example, although extremely simplified, is one commonly seen and should be considered if problems arise.

When speaking of modifying behavior in our animal friends, it is important to remember that the simple act of being born as human beings does not give us the right to dictate exactly how a bird, or any other creature in our household, is to feel or act at all times. Behavior modification should be used to raise a well-mannered avian companion, or to eliminate or lessen behaviors which adversely affect the relationship between the bird and human, but not to create little "robots" who mindlessly fit all of our selfish criteria. In humans, as well as animals, it is an intricate procedure and the aid of a behaviorist is needed for severe problems; however, frequently, if a bird is placed in the role of a beloved child, and has a clear idea of where it is in the pecking order, undesirable dominant behaviors disappear and are replaced with a more carefree and playful attitude. Once some of the more negative behaviors are under control, simply love the bird, respecting its wonderfully unique nature and overlooking the fact that it may not be a great talker, or piano player, or . . . whatever. Often, simple understanding and respect are all it takes for a wonderful and loving relationship to develop. Probably the greatest service which a bird lover can provide to his or her little friend would be to help it clearly understand its place within the flock, and, of course, to always love it for what it is, and not for what he or she wants it to be.

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