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Creating a Happy and Problem-Free Avian Companion
by Chris Davis
The keeping of avian companions has changed profoundly since the 1970's. At that time, most birds were captured in the wild and exported worldwide. After arrival in the United States, they were quarantined in special facilities before being sold to the public. The experience was harsh and frightening for creatures that were prey animals in the wild. Little was known of each bird's origins, beside the fact that it had been captured in the wild. Most large psittacine birds can live up to seventy-five years of age; and, with the exception of very young or very old individuals, it is often impossible to estimate their age with any accuracy. Because of this, it is a certainty that many of the captured birds were older animals, with well-established mates, nest sites and dependent young at the time of their capture. Taming of wild caught psittacine birds was necessary before they could be safely handled. Regrettably, many of the older birds did not become loving companions. Often, those evaluated as being unfit for human companionship were sold to breeding facilities, where some became the parents of the first large groups of domestically bred psittacine birds.
Unlike other companion animals, few domestically produced psittacine birds are currently bred for behavioral characteristics compatible with those of human beings. In fact, many current companion birds are the progeny of the aforementioned 'untamable' wild captured individuals, initially deemed suitable solely for breeding purposes. This becomes a relevant observation when one considers the theory that birds may inherit some behavior traits from their parents. Consequently, most domestically bred, hand fed psittacine birds instinctively react to their surroundings in the same manner as their relatives and ancestors in the wild. Because of their parentage, some may also be inherently more aggressive or fearful than the average individual in a normal gene pool. It is imperative to consider those factors when working with the avian companion. Regardless of human expectations, to a certain extent, psittacine birds remain wild animals. This is especially noticeable in the manner that they respond to potential danger.
In the wild, the psittacine bird's primary consideration is for its own safety. This should also be the primary consideration for the happiness and well-being of the domestic avian companion. It is important, therefore, to examine the home environment for objects or situations that the bird might perceive as being potentially dangerous.
Domestic Applications Relevant to Wild Heritage
Excessive environmental stimuli can lead to nervousness or aggression on the part of the psittacine bird. Although the presence of a flock brings a greater sense of safety to the birds that live in the wild, in that environment they also possess the option of flying to a different, safer, location. In a domestic environment, birds are usually confined to a particular cage, play gym, or area and lack the ability to depart if, and when, the various stress factors become intolerable. If the bird spends much of its time assessing potential dangers in its environment, there is little energy left for it to enjoy life, or to learn play activities with the people in its environment.
Since any animal close enough to physically touch the psittacine birds is also capable of killing them, visual elements play a large role in their lives. Because, as well, there is little time for assessing whether or not an animal or a quick movement noted on the edge of the visual field may be dangerous, their actions are often autonomic in nature. In the domestic environment, numerous objects or situations can trigger a flight or fight response. Lights and shadows cast upon the walls or ceiling by sunlight refracting from automobile windows, or by leaves shimmering in the sunny afternoon breeze, can make the bird nervous and jumpy. This is true, as well, for moving lights that play upon the walls when a television is on in a dark room, or when headlights of passing cars cast light and shadows close to the bird.
Skylights where wild birds are observed flying overhead can create fear in domestic psittacine birds, through excessive visual stimulation response, as can their placement in front of large, uncovered windows. People or animals walking past the cage, especially within two or three feet, will eventually trigger a fight or flight response, regardless of how much they are loved by the bird. Although there are certain positive aspects to the foregoing locations, they are some of the most frequent triggers of the flight or fight response. Since the reaction to those situations is autonomic, it is difficult to desensitize the bird so that it will not react adversely to them. Ultimately, to feel safe, the bird must always have a place where it can visually remove itself from possible fear inducing stimuli.
Remedying visual 'overload' is relatively simple. Cover one end, including the front, back and top, of the bird's cage with an old sheet, or some other nontoxic cloth that the person does not mind having punched full of beak holes. Placing the cage against a wall, or in a corner, with part of the front, top and end of the cage covered eliminates a certain amount of visual stress. Little commercially made cloth huts work well with some of the smaller, or younger birds. Using a hut with a sexually mature bird may lead to problems because it will be perceived as a nest site and the bird may defend it as such. A sheet covering an end, or a corner, of the cage will usually not trigger this response. This is true, as well, of small open wooden huts, designed with a perch inside, but lacking a front or a floor. They offer an element of visual respite and security that the bird can access when it feels it is necessary to do so, without being perceived as a nest site.
In homes where multiple birds are present, bird 'politics' may take place. This occurs most frequently where one or more birds are sexually mature and of an age where they would be competing with other birds in the wild for nest sites. Clients often present a screaming or feather picking bird whose cage just happens to be located next to, or across the room from, a more aggressive individual. Since much of the aggression is limited to pupillary display, simply moving or partially covering the fearful individual's cage is often all that is needed to stop the negative behavior, especially if it is caught in its earliest stages.
Their natural wariness of the unfamiliar can also cause a bird to experience a sense of discomfort when there are visitors in the home. Birds are not domesticated and cannot be expected to allow every stranger they see to handle them. Respect for the bird's feelings should always prevail. The owner is the bird's only stable ally and protector. As such, it is advisable for them to simply explain the unique avian perspective of the world to visitors and not allow them to handle the bird.
Desensitizing of the bird to first, regular visitors and, later, to strangers should be slowly implemented. Many birds, if not forced to withstand the presence of strangers for exaggerated periods, will eventually seek out their attention, especially if they are allowed to sit in their partially covered cages and watch the visitors interact with their owners. Some birds are 'party animals' from the very beginning. They thrive when there is an audience present. The main problem with those individuals is that of simply becoming too demanding. Temper their behavior by placing the bird inside its cage for intermittent periods when visitors are present. If done in a cheerful manner, with a favorite toy or food item offering, the bird will not feel that it is being punished and will learn to accept that it is not the center of the universe.
In addition to visual security, it is imperative to place the cage housing the psittacine bird in a safe location. Although most enjoy watching their human companions throughout the day, placing the cage within four feet of a path of traffic can trigger a flight or fight response in the bird. If possible, a corner of a busy room is best in a busy location, offering the bird protection on two sides, plus the ability to see its human 'flock.' Partial covering of one corner of the front of the cage can provide visual respite, when necessary.
Utmost care must be taken to assure the safety of young psittacine birds. A variety of perch sizes; the inclusion of ladders or shelves; and, the addition of a false floor, raising its height to only four to six inches under the main perch and food bowls, can all contribute to the development of a well-adjusted youngster. There is no reason to place babies where they regularly fall what are, to them, great heights. Almost any young creature undergoing such an experience, including humans, will be a strong candidate for the development of future behavioral disorders.
Adequate sleep is imperative for the psittacine bird. In homes where a television is on near the bird's cage, during the later hours of the evening, place a small sleeping cage in a quiet room and transfer the bird there at an earlier time.
In the wild, foraging occupies much of the bird's time. A variety of foods will also keep the companion bird mentally stimulated if chosen for color and texture, as well as for nutritional value. Clients often complain about how much food their birds waste. It is important that they understand that one of the roles that parrots play is the tossing of detritus, such as seeds, for continued propagation of foodstuff in the wild. Such an essential act in their native environment also brings a degree of comfort and enjoyment to the companion bird that will often alleviate, or completely prevent the onset of, various undesirable behaviors.
Boundaries and Play Activities
After meeting all criteria for the bird's physical and mental safety and well-being, the subject of play can be addressed, as well as the setting of essential boundaries. Some clients will be reluctant to teach the bird rules and boundaries, feeling that their new companion should be 'free as a bird.' Explain that, in their native environment, there are distinct rules and boundaries that must be observed within the flock, for the comfortable integration of each individual. The learning of rules and boundaries are, in fact, a necessity of avian life, regardless of whether they live in a wild or domestic environment.
A comfortable balance must be established between the people and the bird when setting both physical and behavioral boundaries. Those boundaries must be defined by the owner and clearly reinforced. If this is not done, the very foundation of positive behavior training will be threatened. After all, if the owner cannot clearly define acceptable parameters, how can the bird be expected to understand what it can, and cannot, do?
For example, allowing the bird to wander about the house unsupervised is not recommended because many such birds establish their own territory and may aggressively defend it, especially as they become sexually mature. Is the bird allowed to stay on top of its cage, or on the person's shoulder? Many birds eventually become aggressive to people when allowed such liberties. Is chewing of certain objects allowed and does the bird understand that the chewing of other things is forbidden? Does the owner understand the perennial tempting nature of all chewable items and that the things the bird cannot chew must be placed out of its reach, regardless of how well it has been trained? When a bird has access to, and chews on, prized or potentially harmful household objects, the fault lies solely with the owner and, not with the bird. For the safety of the bird and the environment, it must always be supervised when out of its cage.
To prevent damage to property, or harm to the bird, train it to sit on a perch or a play gym. This is not difficult to do, especially if established early in the bird's arrival at its new home. Since the bird is being trained to understand a new behavior, it must be constantly supervised during training episodes. The owner can be engaged in their own activities, while remaining in the same area where the bird is located. It is essential that they use abundant quantities of intermittent praise while the bird remains perched. If it climbs or jumps down, it immediately loses its perching privileges by being placed inside the closed cage for five or ten minutes. Repeat the procedure, without fail, until the bird understands that it is not permitted to climb down whenever it wishes. Corrections should be clear, brief, and quickly administered. If the owner maintains daily training sessions, is hundred percent diligent in praising and correcting the bird, results are usually seen within the relatively short period of a few days, at the very most.
Regardless of whatever behavior is manifested, it is never acceptable to strike a bird. Even yelling should only be used to warn the bird of danger. In addition to its unnecessary aggressive nature, in a corrective situation, yelling will often actually reward undesired behavior in some birds.
One of the most frequently seen problems is that of excessive screaming. Is the bird permitted to vocalize? If so, to what extent? Although it is not reasonable to expect most psittacine birds to be completely quiet, definite boundaries need to be set regarding exactly how much vocalizing is permitted. The manner in which these boundaries are reinforced depends on the bird's temperament and upon the owner's ability to work with behavior.
Young birds may scream because of separation anxiety. If they feel safe in their environment and the owner does not immediately respond to the behavior, but reenters the room immediately after the bird is quiet, it will learn that quietness will garner the desired effect. If the person is consistent and clear, altering or completely preventing behavior problems can be quite simple.
When setting boundaries, or play rules; or, when correcting behavior, consider each bird's temperament. Some are little 'Buddha' birds, who can happily sit all day in one location. Others are rambunctious mischief-makers who require constant supervision. Plan activities and provide toys that each particular type of bird enjoys. Color, shape and size are important considerations. Focus on those that the bird shows a consistent interest in, and avoid those that frighten the bird. Gradually desensitize each bird to a variety of playthings and experiences.
Understand the bird's limitations. Do not force an extremely active bird to sit in one place for excessive periods. Acknowledge that is impossible for such birds. Instead, return them to their cage, or play with them for a few minutes to break up the monotony.
Short periods of interactive playtime between owner and bird, with and without toys, interspersed between times of solitude or of perching, are conducive to the development of a properly socialized bird. When perching on a gym, or in its cage, provide additional toys for the bird to play with. Praising the bird during those episodes will condition it to the positive aspects of solitary play. It is also advisable to periodically keep the bird inside its cage when people are home. This will eliminate the expectation of having to be out of its cage every time people are present.
A Varied Schedule
Some behavior consultants stress the importance of a set routine for psittacine birds. In over 25 years of working with birds, it has been the experience of the author that the exact opposite is true. When a bird is placed in a safe and loving environment with a privacy space, a supply of fresh food and water; and, if they know the essential boundaries and 'rules' of the household, they flourish through experiencing a certain amount of variety. In fact, those particular birds are significantly more flexible and accept most new situations with relatively little stress. On the other hand, birds accustomed to a rigid routine may suffer severe stress when they experience changes, of any kind.
The most prevalent exception to the foregoing concerns sleeping times. Some birds, even if they are very flexible in other aspects of their lives, will insist on a particular bedtime. It is the experience of the author and many of her clients, that such birds simply become tired at a particular time, and require a quiet and dark environment where they can get the rest they need.
The Importance of Praise
The single most underrated and underutilized component of creating a happy and problem free avian companion is that of praise. Most people spend enormous amounts of time telling a bird what they do not want it to do, and remain silent when it is behaving appropriately. When praised for positive behaviors, the bird will learn to concentrate its attention on them, while eschewing undesirable activities that garner little or no response from their people. In essence, the unwanted activities will gradually cease, with no need for more elaborate corrections. The intermittent periods of praise need not be long or elaborate. A few heartfelt words, delivered in a cheerful and loving tone, will profoundly reinforce the positive behaviors. Indeed, the procedure is so simple that it is actually difficult for many people to understand, until they try it and reap its wonderful benefits.
When working with a bird that is usually well adjusted and who enjoys being with people, respect those times when they may not want to come out of their cage to play, or when they are grumpy. A well-behaved bird is not a robot. It will have occasional 'bad' days, like everyone else. If, during those times, the bird is pressured to come out of its cage and interact with people, it may bite, or may begin to withdraw from those with whom it usually enjoys interacting. If, however, their behavior is noted and they are not forced to interact on those particular days, their mood will usually return to normal within a day or two.
The avian companion possesses unique and essential needs. Once those needs are provided, it is receptive to learning most reasonable boundaries and behaviors. It is imperative to implement rules and boundaries with clarity, consistency, compassion, and copious amounts of praise. Those essentials, taught in a patient and unconditionally loving manner, will almost guarantee the development of a happy and problem free avian companion.
Chris Davis (USA)
Ms. Davis pioneered the field of parrot behaviour consulting in 1974 while working at Universal Studios. When it comes to parrot psychology, few would argue that the "Bird Lady" is one of America's leading experts. Her columns and videos explain the seemingly unexplainable behaviour of our parrots and suggest reasonable plans of action to reduce problems.