Canadian Parrot Symposium

Canadian Parrot Symposium



Silvio Mattacchione & Co. - Quality Books About Birds & Aviculture

All material Copyright 19912002 by the Canadian Parrot Symposium unless otherwise noted. For permission and information about reprinting articles, please e-mail your request.

Why Do Some Baby Parrots Lose Their Homes?

Mattie Sue Athan

Dreaming of a "perfect" feathered companion, aspiring parrot owners often see themselves enjoying idyllic evenings with a calm bird snuggled on the shoulder, sharing simple conversations as they read or watch TV. Some picture a dazzling feathered creature on an immaculate ornamental cage or perch surrounded by lush vegetation, objects d' art, and colorful baskets.

And the premium hand fed baby parrots offered for sale are usually perfect in almost every way: beautifully feathered, interactive, and talkative. Even their price demonstrates that they are the finest product of the aviculturists' art. However, there's a very real temptation to believe that because that expensive baby parrot is perfect when it comes home, it will stay that way.

Certainly some will; a percentage of "untrained" parrots grow up to be perfectly non-invasive companions. Most parrots, however, will more likely want to "practice" plastic surgery by removing little moles, go ballistic when we leave the room, try to out scream the telephone, chew through computer cords, unweave baskets, "harvest" household plants, and decorate the walls with brightly-colored, cement-like food or droppings. With little planning and no behavior training some parrots develop traits that can make them about as welcome as a telephone solicitor.

Learning Indoor Survival Skills

A premium hand fed baby parrot is preferably weaned, but under six months old when it goes to its new home. This is the ideal time to begin behavioral training; it's a window of opportunity for teaching the baby parrot both human-interactive behaviors and independence. In the wild, the baby parrot would be learning what to eat and where to find it, how to find friends and avoid enemies, how to get "home" at night. This is probably the most important developmental period in the bird's life, for if appropriate skills are not learned at this time, the wild bird will not survive.

It's not that different in the human home. If behavior training is neglected during these important baby days, then either aggression, shyness, overbonding, excessive screaming, or other acquired misbehaviors can easily develop. If the new owner of a medium or larger hookbill has not planned the bird's environment and begun behavioral training by the time the bird is 18 months old, the possibilities for the bird's future can begin to look pretty scary. That is, if a misbehaving parrot is not judiciously socialized either before misbehaviors appear or immediately after, the bird might be moved to the back room or sold through the newspaper (emotionally or physically abandoned).

But what kind of "problems" can new parrot owners expect? How could a relatively small creature like a bird —a very expensive creature— drive normally reasonable humans to such extravagant and reprehensible behavior?

The most common reasons humans give up companion parrots are the behavior problems: screaming and biting, and the natural behaviors: chewing and messiness. These issues must be addressed separately, for only the former are true behavior problems. Chewing and messiness are innate behaviors that must be planned for and accommodated.

Patterning for Cooperation and Confidence

A successful companion parrot must learn both cooperation and independence. A hand fed bird first learns "cooperation" by participating in the process of being fed by humans. The weaned juvenile should be able to presume that food and water will always be available. How, then, are cooperation skills generated and reinforced after weaning?

Step-up practice facilitates and inspires cooperation in a baby parrot. The appropriately wing-feather-trimmed bird is sitting on one hand. Approaching the bird from below, we present the hand to be stepped upon by placing it just over the baby's feet - gently bumping the bird's thigh where it joins the belly - and give the verbal command to "Step up!" The bird lifts its foot (usually the same foot every time), places it on the offered hand, shifts its weight, and brings the back foot up to the new perch. We then praise the bird and sensitively repeat the exercise.

If the bird nips or bites the offered hand, first be sure that the prompt hand is being offered close enough to the bird: just over the feet rather than an inch or so in front of the feet. If the prompt is being delivered correctly, and the bird is still nipping the offered hand, wobble the hand the bird is sitting on, maintain eye contact, and say, "Be a GOOD BIRD!" The young bird will have to think about retaining balance and grip, will be distracted from the bite, and will be reminded of appropriate behavior. The nipping behavior will soon disappear.

The predictability of the human's and the bird's responses to one another provides a comfortable standard for all other interactions. I find that a palm-up, forearm-perpendicular-to-the-floor posture maintains the best human control of the step-up interaction. This grip should prevent the bird from climbing to the shoulder, for much mischief can develop in a parrot that is allowed to choose access to the shoulder. Once on the palm, if the bird starts to jump, loose its grip, or begins to flap, the thumb can be quickly placed across the foot to prevent falling. As the baby bird gains coordination and learns to anticipate the interaction, it should also learn to step up onto a hand-held perch.

Each human expecting to interact with the bird must practice step-ups for a minute or so, a couple of times most days. Patterning to the step-up command should also include practice stepping on and off the hand to an unfamiliar stationary perch such as a chair back or sofa. Once the bird is comfortably patterned to step onto and off of an unfamiliar perch, then practice is expanded to include stepping onto and off of a familiar perch; for the most potentially troubling step-up will be the one from a familiar stationary perch (cage or home territory).

At this time it's best to pattern most hookbills to come directly to the hand from the perch inside the cage. This should be easily, almost naturally accomplished in a newly-weaned baby parrot. If a young bird is allowed to bite the hand of its primary person giving a proper step up prompt inside the cage, then habitual territorial aggression will certainly result.

A few of the smaller birds such as Quakers, some conures, and lovebirds may be so intent on chasing hands out of the cage, that all but the most favorite humans manage them best by stepping them up from the cage door or cage top. Occasional nippiness in, on, and around the cage may be defeated by patterning the bird to step on to and off of a hand-held perch instead of a bare hand. Simply substitute one hand-held perch then two hand-held perches when practicing step-ups from hand to hand. Then if the bird is in a nippy mood, stepping up from the cage can be easily accomplished onto the hand-held perch so that the human sustains no bite.


An effective relationship with a parrot must begin with and maintain both mutual trust and respect. Step-ups and all behavioral practice must be administered regularly and sensitively. If bird and humans achieve no mutual respect, the relationship is lost. If, for example, the baby parrot begins to treat a human like a "piece of property" rather than a "respected flockmate", everybody could be in trouble. Although most parrots go through at least a nippy stage (this is part of the normal development of independence and personality in many juvenile hookbills), the appearance of biting behaviors around a particular person or location can signal the development of territorial or bonding-related aggression.

Frequent, soothing verbal reinforcement is a necessary component of successful step-up practice. Reinforcing the bird to enjoy step-up practice not only acts to prevent the development of normal parrot aggression, but also prevents the occasional development of shyness. While an aggressive juvenile parrot gains cooperation skills from step-ups, the shy or fearful bird can learn confidence from the predictability of the interaction. Early patterning is also necessary to prevent the development of stress reactions to toweling. A companion parrot requires annual veterinary examinations and grooming at least twice yearly. Cuddling, snuggling, and playing "peek-a-bird" in a towel will improve trust and condition the baby to enjoy or at least tolerate being restrained during these potentially-stressful interactions.

We must be empathetic and predictable in the handling of all baby parrots, but the maintenance of trust is especially important to the African greys, the small cockatoos, and the small African parrots (Poicephalus). This group has an occasional tendency to acquire sudden-onset phobic behaviors, sometimes exhibits heightened reactions, and appears to have a tendency to what might be called exceptional bonding-related behaviors. We use extra care and consistency with these species to compensate for these traits.

Screaming and Independence

Common screaming behaviors can develop almost any time after weaning. The most usual source of early screaming is immediately-perceived abandonment: the baby parrot screams when a favorite person leaves the room. This can be loud and true screaming; it differs from continued begging behaviors which are probably related to weaning anxiety. (On-going begging is usually easily defeated with improved feeding practices.)

From the moment a bappy is aware of its surroundings, interesting tools (toys) must be provided to generate self-rewarding play behaviors. If a baby parrot has not learned to amuse itself, no amount of ignoring screaming in the other room will improve the bird's behavior. Ignoring a screaming baby can also damage the bird's ability to trust.

Give the baby parrot a "job" to do just before you leave the room: interest the bird in ringing a bell or untying a new rawhide knot; maybe tie a paper towel around a favorite toy; or provide some difficult to obtain or eat food. We might give the bird a short shower, so that it would be distracted by preening. Reward and reinforce any behavior you would like to see again. Interesting reinforced behaviors can very quickly replace unreinforced behaviors.

A parrot probably needs about as much sleep as there is darkness at any given time of year. A young bird might be screaming because it's had too little sleep. If the bappy is kept up late each evening, we might cover the cage for a short time to encourage napping during the day.

Odd behaviors can also develop because a parrot has too little to do; a baby parrot might bite or scream because it has unused energy. Try requiring the bird to do more step-ups, take more outings, climb more, engage in more flapping exercises, and bathe more frequently. Especially, take time to show the bird how to play with toys. It's not unusual for humans in a home where a bird does not play to admit that humans in the home do not play either.

Never underestimate the behavioral influences of diet. Timing and content of diet may be the most easily manipulated factors in the prevention and modification of screaming. Examine and enrich a screaming bird's diet, for a bird on a boring, inadequate, or erratic diet has good reason to scream. A bird on a truly deficient diet might not have the energy or motivation either to scream or talk.

Change is Good

During the first six months in the home it is especially important to avoid allowing a baby parrot to become overly possessive of any particular human or territory. Encourage the bird to have relationships with as many humans and other safe animals as possible and to spend as much time as possible in diverse locations inside and out of the home. Access to appropriate choices; outings where the bird will meet sensitive, interactive humans; and regular changes in the cage and home environment will pattern the bird to tolerate the inevitable twists of fate that plague all creatures.

Teach a companion parrot to accept a diverse, nutritious diet by setting a good example. A wild parrot learns to eat what it sees other parrots eating. If humans in the household fail to eat diverse, nutritious foods, the human-identified parrot in that household will likely do the same. Parrot behavior consultant, Layne Dicker, says that he has seen humans lose up to 20 pounds by improving their companion parrot's diet.

Avoid vacations away from any baby parrot, especially the Africans and small cockatoos, during the first year. In order to prevent the development of abandonment-related behaviors, baby parrots must be taught a concept of time before they are left at all. Time markers in the environment such as lighting or a television on a timer can provide easy access to understanding the passage of time. With such an understanding, baby parrots can be conditioned to tolerate increasingly longer owner absences.

Chewing and Messiness

Most hookbills are cavity breeders. When a cavity breeding parrot is gleefully turning the priceless antique clock into toothpicks, it is really saying: "See what a good parent I would be! I could make a really nice nest cavity for you and our babies!"

If a cavity breeding parrot is not provided with appropriate chewables, screaming is the least of the problems that could develop. Provision for chewing behaviors will help to prevent nail biting, over preening, feather chewing, and other innovated displacement behaviors.

Chewing and its ugly cousin, messiness, are innate behaviors, not behavior problems. That is, they must be accepted and accommodated because they are part of the parrot's nature that cannot be changed. A good quality cage is especially important here. The cage may be the most significant factor in whether or not the bird succeeds in its first home. Look for a cage that is easy to clean and easy to move. A good modern cage has at least three dishes -- one each for dry foods, moist foods, and water -- and a mess containment system of some sort. The third dish and mess catcher may be optional, but they are very, very important to ensure long term physical health for the bird and mental health for the owner.

Plan an effective indoor parrot habitat with an eye for good lighting, an interesting view of human activities, appropriate height for the particular bird, just the right amount of shelter for that bird, and maximum ease of cleaning of all nearby surfaces. A hard-to-clean cage or environment can easily inspire resentment in humans responsible for cleaning and damage the human/bird bond.

Continuing Behavioral Practice

Positive reinforcement is the primary means by which we maintain good behavior. That is, desirable behaviors are appropriately rewarded with food, loving words, or gestures. A bird that is frequently told that it is a "good bird" or even that it should "be a good bird" is more likely to actually live up to those expectations.

Practicing the simple principles discussed here daily throughout the parrot's lifetime will help to maintain tameness during the sexual years; and there are many sexual years in this long-lived little dinosaur's life. Unlike companion dogs and cats, birds are not spayed or neutered for behavioral reasons. Parrots are allowed to retain their reproductive physiology and, therefore, demonstrate more sexual behaviors than other companion animals. Because birds must be allowed full range of their sexual impulses, behavioral training is probably more important for a large hookbill to adjust successfully to a human home than for a small or medium-sized dog to achieve a similar level of adjustment.

All the "potential" behavior problems discussed here are usually very, very easily prevented. A new parrot owner who is lucky enough to find publications like Birds USA, Bird Talk, Pet Bird Report, or books like Guide to a Well Behaved Parrot and My Parrot, My Friend, might never see problematic behavior habits at all, ever. Even if a bird's behavior is already out of control, professional intervention at the first onset of a new behavior can prevent new habitual misbehaviors and sometimes restore lost behaviors.

A parrot is a wild (undomesticated) animal, and not, necessarily, a perfect companion for every human. A baby parrot must be trained to cooperate, guided to emotional independence, and accommodated for its natural behaviors. If a person loves thunderstorms or busy children dismantling toys; if one enjoys watching a flower open (and close); then he or she would probably love a parrot. If you think you could live with something like an occasional indoor tornado and are willing to accommodate some hot air and mess in order to share the company of sublime feathered joy, then a parrot might just be the perfect companion.

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