Canadian Parrot Symposium

Canadian Parrot Symposium



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

Basic Principles of Psittacine Behavior:

How They Apply To Companion Parrots
by Sally Blanchard

Editor: The Pet Bird Report, Author: The Companion Parrot Handbook

In my behavioral consultations, I always try to help people understand why their parrots act the way they do under certain circumstances. The more they learn and understand about the habits and behavior of wild parrots, the more they are able to help prevent and solve the problems they have with their companion parrots. If my clients comprehend the causes of their parrot's problem behaviors, they can become their own behavioral consultants. They can use positive interactions to either prevent problems in the future or create common sense solutions that solve the underlying causes rather than using quick-fix distractions that only address the symptoms of the problem.

It is important for anyone dealing with parrots to stay aware of the fact that the vast majority of parrot family birds have not been bred for enough generations in captivity to make changes in their genetic makeup. Therefore, they come out of the egg with a full complement of instinctive behaviors. Most of these natural behaviors are inappropriate for life in our living room and can create serious conflict and confusion for young parrots as they mature. However, young parrot chicks in the wild are taught many of their flock traditions and social and survival skills. With a basic understanding of natural parrot behavior and flock traditions, it is possible for parrot caregivers to teach new skills and establish appropriate behaviors for their companion parrots.

The following are a few basic concepts involving wild parrots that explain much about the way our avian companions act in our living rooms. These concepts are closely related to each other. For example, the fact that parrots are prey animals has created a strong flock response in many species. Close flock interaction, strong pair bonds, territoriality, and verbal communication all provide security if there is a threat to an individual or the flock.

Parrots are K-Select Species.

Most parrot family birds are what biologists refer to as K-select Species. These are birds who produce only a few offspring once a year. Their young are altricial which means they are hatched naked, blind, and helpless. The road from hatchling to adulthood is perilous, with no guarantee of survival. Parental care is intensive and long-term. Chicks remain dependent on their parents and/or flock, and the young take at least a few years to become capable of breeding. Most parrot species live in flocks with strong traditions involving communication, behavior, and specific nesting, roosting, and foraging areas.

Parrots are capable of learning.

The fact that young parrots need long-term socialization from their family and flock to learn their survival and social skills is evidence that much of a parrot's behavior depends on learning. All-important flock traditions are carefully taught and learned by eager young parrots. The closer a young parrot comes to independence, in many ways, the more dependent he is until he becomes secure enough to transition away from parental care. Parrots are vocal communicators and there is constant calling as the chick wanders farther and farther from the parent. Parrots have their own language—calls with specific meaning. It is as if the chicks are asking, "Am I OK?" with the parent answering, "Yes, you are fine!" If there is danger, the youngster is called closer to the security of the flock. Even as adults, because they are prey animals, parrots depend on staying in touch with their flock for safety. Parents instinctively want their chicks to mature and to become independent so they teach them to the best of their ability. If a wild parrot chick does not successfully learn his social and survival skills, he does not survive. If too many offspring of a species don't survive, the continuity of the flock, and even the species, is threatened. If the mortality is consistently higher than the birth rate, the species is doomed and extinction is forever. This is how critically important early socialization is for wild parrots.

It is logical that quality early socialization is also critical for domestically-raised parrots People raising baby parrots must become the surrogate parents, providing them with the early socialization that helps them adjust to life as human companions. Otherwise, parrots respond to what goes on in their environment on an instinctive level. This does not result in getting their needs met by the people in their lives. If they have not been taught new behaviors, when their instinctive behaviors are continually blocked, parrots develop displacement behaviors as a substitute. These displacement behaviors come out of confusion, with the results often creating problems such as food rigidity, excessive screaming, aggressive biting, and behavioral feather picking. Signs of poor early socialization may not be readily evident in birds who have not fledged or weaned. Poorly socialized companion parrots begin to exhibit behavioral dysfunction as they mature and reach their independence stages. The socialization process to help baby parrots successfully adapt to life as human companions is just as important to their success as the teaching of flock traditions is to wild parrot chicks.

Parrots are prey animals.

In the wild, parrots are prey animals. Predators hunt and eat them. There is safety in numbers and parrots rely on their flock for security and protection. Despite being domestically raised, a pet parrot has the instinctive fears and responses of a prey animal. Companion parrots rely on the trusted people in their lives to keep them safe and secure. A sustained threat or trauma can create fear responses and even long-term phobic behavior in sensitive parrots. An avian veterinarian can make a major difference a parrot's comfort level during examination. While a veterinarian will most likely have to do examinations, testing, and/or procedures that make a parrot uncomfortable or even cause him pain, the general atmosphere should always be one that is protective and benevolent towards the parrot. In talking with hundreds of people about their veterinarian experiences, the most prevalent complaint is rough handling during capture and examination. Since parrots are highly empathic, the simple act of having a veterinarian (or staff person) calm down and relax before approaching and handling the bird can make a significant positive difference in the parrot's sense of security. The veterinarian who rushes into the room, approaches the bird quickly, towels him from the back, grabs him up, and immediately turns him on his back for examination does more harm than good. Swooping down on a parrot from behind with a towel creates a fear response in a parrot similar to that caused by a Harpy Eagle looking for lunch. It is not possible to sneak up on a wary parrot from the back—they have eyes in the sides of their head and always know if they are being "attacked." I believe that parrots who are either chased around the room to be toweled or encompassed from the back and then quickly turned over on their backs experience the same fear as a parrot who has been attacked by a predator. Being on their backs is an extremely defensive posture, and most companion parrots will not willingly lie on their backs unless they implicitly trust the person handling them. In grooming birds over the last two decades, I have consistently observed that it is essential to lower my energy before I approach a parrot. Then I calmly towel him from the front while I am smiling and have my head lowered in a submissive posture. Taking a minute to do these simple things creates a benevolent situation where the parrot is far less threatened and far more receptive to my handling. This also saves me time because an agitated, frightened parrot is far less cooperative.

If a companion parrot has been in a traumatic situation and develops a strong fear response, the veterinarian is in a perfect situation to explain to his client how to keep from making the situation worse once the parrot is home. It is best for everyone to be patient with the bird and not take the parrot's fear behavior as personal rejection. Some phobic parrots seem to go into "prey mode" around their previously trusted owners. Being too direct while interacting with a phobic parrot may cause more fear. People need to move slowly and establish a submissive posture to win back the trust of the frightened or phobic parrot. Until the parrot begins to trust again, it is best for the people in his life to establish a submissive posture with him by moving slowly with head lowered and not making direct eye contact until he relaxes. Too much handling too soon may continue to reinforce the fear behavior.

Most parrots are social flock animals with strong mate and family bonds.

While some basic parrot behavior may be instinctive, the finesse of social and survival skills is learned from parents and flock members. Parrots mature slowly and require a great deal of instructional attention to reach their independence stages. Because they are social animals, companion parrots (especially young birds) also need a lot of interaction and attention to develop their pet potential. But it shouldn't be just physical affection or cuddle time. Instructional interaction, essential for a parrot's emotional and physical well being, is nurturing time spent teaching the parrot skills, and guiding and patterning behavior. Parrots thrive on a consistent amount of daily attention from their human flocks.

As a prey animal, parrots pick up every little nuance from the flock and sentinel birds. For example, watching the synchronicity of a large flock of Bare-eyed Cockatoos clearly shows how in tune they are with each other. They move together as if they have been choreographed, yet no single bird seems to be directing the flight pattern. Each individual parrot's life depends on heeding the warning to survive a predator attack. Because parrots are so tuned into emotion, any rise in our emotions can create a flight response in our companion parrots. For this reason, yelling at them, becoming agitated at them, and punishment are ineffective.

Strong bonds between parrots and humans are based on mutual trust. In working with our companion parrots, the most important consideration is whether or not what we do will be trust-building or trust-destroying. The majority of punishment techniques used with parrots are trust-destroying.

A companion parrot quickly learns to sense or read the body language of the people around him. A parrot will be unlikely to relax with a person who is uncomfortable handling him. Parrots will also bond more readily with people who provide them with clear, consistent guidance. If people are afraid or apprehensive around their parrots, chances are they will not be comfortable with them. They either be apprehensive of being handled or may react with aggression to get people to leave them alone. Focused attention, gentling exercises, and comfortable cuddle time help to keep parrots tame throughout his life.

Most parrots are reactors rather than actors. Aggression is usually met with aggression or fear, depending on the bird. Fear is often met with fear that may result in an aggressive response from a parrot. People who know how to calm themselves down will usually be able to calm down an overexcited parrot by slowing down their own energy before attempting to interact with the bird. If a person wants a parrot to be comfortable with him, he will need to relax with the bird. If the owner has had a bad day or is simply not in a good mood, unless he can calm down first, he is better off not handling his parrot.

Because of their empathic responses, parrots can actually teach us a lot about ourselves. I usually stop and pay attention to my own mood if one of my parrots has a negative response to me. In this manner, my parrots often provide me with a much-needed attitude adjustment. Many people try to return their parrots to the cage when they are in a hurry. The bird simply will not cooperate, and the more upset and rushed the person becomes, the more the bird becomes frenzied and even aggressive. It this problem occurs, it is much easier for the owner to walk away, and do some relaxation exercises to slow down his energy. Then, he can go back to the bird and approach him calmly and decisively. The parrot is much more likely to cooperate.

Parrots can be protective of their territory, flock, family, and mate. In a parrot's natural habitat, choice nest sites are usually at a premium. There is often great competition for nesting sites within the flock, from the other bird species, or from other animals in the environment. Because of this territorial drive, companion parrots can become protective of their cage and their perceived mate. Introducing new objects or people and trying to work with a parrot around his cage may result in aggressive, or in some cases, fear behavior. The best place to work with a parrot who is starting to develop behavioral problems is in a neutral room. This is an unfamiliar, yet comfortable, area of the house where the parrot has no territorial agenda. The parrot should not be able to see his cage, play gym or any other area that he has become used to. An extra bedroom usually makes an excellent neutral room. When you become the most familiar aspect in the neutral room, the parrot is likely to pay close attention to you. Patterning exercises, introducing strangers, teaching new tricks and fun behaviors, working to reestablish bonding after a problem and the handling of an aggressive parrot are best done in the neutral room. With most parrots, new people are intruders and, therefore, a threat to flock security unless a trusted member of the human flock introduces them. New and potentially threatening people and objects that may be a threat to the cage territory are more successfully introduced in a neutral room.

One of the most significant mistakes people make with their companion parrots is to allow them to run up on their shoulder. Almost all parrots, even hand-fed babies, like to be as high as they can. This tendency often results in serious arguments between parrots and people. If the person does not believe in setting rules or providing guidance, the parrot will win easily and his favorite perch will become the shoulder. This may not seem to be a problem in the beginning, but once the parrot becomes patterned it may become difficult to reeducate him not to run up to the shoulder. There are several reasons why this can become a problem. One of the best ways to establish control, or discipline a misbehaving parrot, is with eye contact. If a bird is on a person's shoulder, it is impossible to make eye contact without making his or her face vulnerable to beak injury. Also, a parrot on the shoulder is in a more dominant position because his eye is usually level with or above the person's.

Parrots who have been raised with rules and guidance present far fewer problems for their caregivers when they reach sexual maturity. However, a parrot who has been consistently allowed to perch on the shoulder may create serious problems as he becomes more territorial. Parrots bond strongly to their primary person's face. If they are sexually bonded to us and we allow them to sit on our shoulder, I believe their perception is one of sitting together with us (our head) on a moving tree branch. Our body becomes their territory. If any intruder (your husband, wife, child, neighbor, dog, etc.) threatens the territory, it is instinctive for the bird to defend that territory. In the wild, a pair of parrots becomes very big by spreading their tails and wings, and/or raising their crests to show off all their color. They pin their eyes and become as threatening as possible. The pet bird may show the same behavior, expecting his perceived mate (the owner) to exhibit the same defensive postures to help scare the intruder off. If the person greets the intruder with a cheery "hello" and sits there like a lump, he or she becomes part of the problem, not part of the solution. The parrot can't defend his mate and the territory at the same time, so the mate has to leave. The bird takes a swipe at the owner's face, probably to get him fly away so he can defend the territory and the inept mate can come back when it is safe. If a parrot takes a jab at another parrot, he most likely gets a beak full of feathers. If he takes a jab at his owner, he gets a beak full of skin.

Parrots communicate both vocally and with body language

Paying close attention to a parrot's body language will usually help people predict what their parrot is going to do next. There are times when it is simply not worth the aggravation to approach a parrot. If he is excited or in behavioral overload, it is best to let him calm down before approaching him. If, however, it is essential to pick him up for his own safety, it is best to distract him from what he is doing before approaching him. Holding up an unfamiliar (but not threatening) object, calling his name, and clapping are ways to attract his attention from what he is doing.

Not only do parrots communicate with body language and the flash colors of their feathers, they are also vocal animals with a language of their own. Parrots use specific sounds, ritual greetings, and contact calls to communicate with each other. Since parrots bond so strongly to us in captivity, our language becomes the language of their flock and many birds will mimic our words to become part of the human flock. In many cases, the parrots use our words appropriately to get their needs met. They also clearly understand the meaning of certain key words and phrases we use frequently with them.

Parrots use contact calls to stay in touch with us. Some elements of screaming and loud vocalization must be accepted by the "human flock" because they are an integral part of being a parrot. Excessive screaming for manipulation or self-stimulation becomes a problem. Most parrots will communicate with body language or contact calls before they go into a full-blown screaming session. One of the best ways to prevent problem screaming is to return pay attention and learn to notice the pre-screaming behavior and return the parrot's contact call with a simple noise or comment like, "Hey, what are you doing?"

Parrots are creatures of habit and patterning.

Although a parrot flock has to adjust to occasional variances in their habitat, they are creatures of habit performing predictable behaviors from day to day. So are people. The more familiar we are with performing a task, the more comfortable we are with it. In fact, we often become so accustomed to performing a task in a particular way that we have to make an intense, concentrated effort to change the habit even if it is causing problems for us. Just as our own bad habits are hard to change, improving our parrot's negative behaviors also takes time and patience. The more we work to pattern good habits, the better behaved our parrots are. Using patterning exercises with our parrots not only creates positive learned behaviors for them, but also patterns us to do things in a clear, consistent manner. In reality, almost all of our interactions with our parrots will teach them something. The more we repeat an action with them, the more patterned they become to accept it, whether it teaches them something positive or not. Because of this, we must be careful that we are patterning good behavior instead of patterning our parrots to misbehave with excessive screaming or aggressive biting.

One of the most helpful patterning exercises teaches the bird the "Up" and "Down" commands and patterns parrots to accept our guidance. The owner should place the parrot on a T-stand in the neutral room. The next step is to calmly and decisively approach his lower belly with the back of the hand using the "Up" command to get him to step on the ridge of the index finger. When he complies, he should be praised for being a good parrot. Then he can be slowly laddered to the other hand using the same technique and then, back to the first, each time saying "Up." After a few more times, place him back on the stand with the "Down" command. Repeat this process a few times, but not so many times he becomes impatient or bored with the routine. Patterning exercises may also be used to get a parrot comfortable with towel handling, teaching parrot to step onto a stick or branch, and getting him gradually used to new people, change, and new adventures.

Parrots are highly active social eaters.

Most parrots are opportunistic omnivores who spend a great deal of time in food-related activities. Foraging and food manipulation is a significant part of a parrot's day and provides them with exercise and stimulation. In captivity, our parrots have far less activity in their lives and need as much stimulation as we can provide them. For this reason I believe that some nutritious food (a piece of carrot, yam, or broccoli are a good choices) should always be available during the day in a parrot's food bowl. We should also make them work for their food—especially for their favorite treats like nuts and seed. Placing these foods high in their cage or on their play gym so they have to climb to get to their favorite foods at least gives them a little exercise. Kabobs and food puzzle toys also encourage curiosity. Activity foods or foods in packages (whether nature-made or devised by humans) also add more activity to foraging in the cage or on the gym. Nuts in the shell, peas in the pod, washed and baked yams in the skin, small winter squashes, and a corn/bean mix wrapped in a tortilla are all excellent activity foods.

A bird owner who eats in front of a parrot, without offering the bird a healthy tidbit first, will usually be screamed at and, in my opinion, he deserves it. Healthy treats kept near the cage can be fed as part of a greeting ritual, or to encourage a strong social bond. Occasional "junk-food" treats may be OK, but remember the size of a parrot in regards to food consumption when you give treats like pizza, nuts, or other high-calorie foods.

The best way to get parrots to eat a new food is to prepare it in front of them and let them see you eating the food as you share pieces with them. If there is more than one person in the parrot's human flock, it is possible to use model-rival techniques to intrigue a parrot into eating new foods. One person feeds healthy foods to the person the parrot has the strongest bond with in front of the bird. Many parrots will try new foods after seeing the person they are bonded to being fed the food just a few times. The main reason people are not successful in getting their parrots to eat healthy new foods is because they don't try hard enough or give up too soon.

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