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Parrot Behavioral Myths and Misinformation
by Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant

Spare No Expense
I first recognized the gravity of behavior problems in parrots when I still worked full-time with avian veterinarians. I saw the following scenario over and over again: a desperately ill parrot is brought in by its distraught owner. The veterinary staff is assured that the owner would do ANYTHING to have his/ her bird back: "Spare no expense. Money is no object. Do whatever you need to do. Save my parrot!!!!" And we would do everything we could, staying up nights with the bird, spending hours treating and nursing it, even dreaming about it when we did finally sleep. And often we would win the battle, and proudly send the little guy home with its tearfully grateful owner.…only to find in a few months that the same beloved parrot had ended up being sold or given away because "He bites" or "He screams" or "He doesn’t like my boyfriend." Obviously, something is seriously wrong here.

I’m going to start off this article with a little historical perspective because I think it is very important. As a veterinary technician working with some of the top avian veterinarians in north-eastern US, I vividly remember the first domestic bred, hand-fed parrot babies I encountered as patients in our hospital. That was in 1983, I repeat – 1983 – just fourteen years ago. The point I am making for those of you who have just become parrot people in the last few years (which, incidentally, includes most of you), is that aviculture in this country only started routinely breeding the larger parrots domestically in the last fifteen to twenty years. (The west coast started sooner than the Northeast.)

Old Sources of Information

So what, you ask? So the point is that, even though we humans have been keeping parrots as pets for thousands of years, those parrots were captured in the wild and tamed. We have only been dealing routinely with baby parrots, or bappies, for the last couple of decades at most. Therefore, most of the parrot behavior information we have is based on our experiences with wild-caught or imported parrots, and an import is a very different animal in an extremely important way. The imported parrot has been socialized, at least to some degree, by other parrots.

Now, let me stop a minute and define "socialize" as I mean it here. What I mean by "to socialize" is to teach to animal to adapt to the society in which it lives. So an imported parrot has been taught by its parents and peers how to adapt to the society of their flock. And once taught, the bird then has the basic tools to adapt, to a degree, to the society of their human flock. This is critical, because these domestic babies are generally not socialized by other parrots. And if they are incubator-raised by breeders who have so many babies in their care that individual birds are handled only when being fed (if even then), then they are essentially not socialized by anyone. They have been basically left to figure things out on their own. And this is a real problem, because just how are they supposed to do this? These are basically wild animals born in captivity, with no genetic information as to how to cope with this captivity. So we are just beginning to catch on to the fact that bappies are really different from adult parrots and have very different needs.

We humans like to consider our-selves to be a "higher" life form (and personally, I am skeptical), but in retrospect we sure have not shown a lot of intelligence and common sense when it comes to baby parrots. Sure, we know that a puppy is going to grow up to be a dog, and that a puppy generally acts different from a dog, and a puppy has to be taught stuff or socialized so it becomes a good pet and happy member of the family. And we know that a kitten grows up to be a cat, and that kittens usually act differently from cats, and that you need to teach a kitten the rules of the house (at least to SOME degree) so it can learn how to be a good pet.

But for some reason, we were not that smart with parrots. We suddenly had these deliciously tame, fabulously cuddly and soft little parrot babies who thought we humans were WONDERFUL. We brought them home from breeders and pet stores in what I like to call "The Bassinet and Goo Stage" – and for some idiotic reason (wishful thinking?), we apparently assumed that they were going to stay that way FOREVER. There was nothing we needed do but feed them a well-balanced diet, get a competent avian vet to look after their health, and love them. Nature had given us the Perfect Pet! (Which is only fair, since we are all such Perfect Owners, right?)

Pets For Sale In The Newspaper

Then those cute babies started to grow up and we started learning how wrong we were. All you have to do is read the Pets For Sale sections in your local newspapers to see this in black and white. If you look, you will notice that many (most?) of the birds for sale are between the ages of six months and two years. This is not a coincidence. From my experience, most of these adolescent birds have behavior problems of some sort or other. And the people who are selling them could possibly be the ones who unknowingly created the behavior problem to begin with. And these well-meaning but uneducated people will probably get another baby parrot and start the same process over again. You know the old saying about history repeating itself unless we learn from it, right? Ultimately, it is always the parrot who pays dearly for the mistakes of the human. We don’t socialize them, or teach them HOW to be good pets. Then we get rid of them when they are not good pets.

People tell me their birds don’t like, for example, broccoli – so they do not offer it anymore. But one of the few guarantees in life is that if your bappy (or for that matter, your human child) does not like broccoli so you never offer it again, well then, I will give you my personal guarantee that he NEVER WILL like broccoli. Human parents know that they have to keep exposing their human children to things that are "good for them." And parrot parents most likely have to do the same thing in the wild. After all, what makes us think that bappies in the wild automatically eat what is good for them? Isn’t it feasible that par-rot parents might go through the same struggles we go through with our own kids regarding consuming a good diet?

Easy Cop Out

A lot of the behavior information written by breeders often tells the pet parrot owner to put their birds in breeding situations, or "get it a mate" when the animal starts acting up (i.e., screaming, biting, feather plucking, etc.). As far as I am concerned, this is generally a copout. It may be tempting for a human parent of a human child to respond to negative behavior – especially the horrific behaviors associated with the onset of puberty – by putting said child up for adoption. After all, as far as I can tell, puberty is that wonderful time that changes the definition of "child abuse" into "justifiable homicide." However, society frowns on parents who get rid of their kids at this time.

But this is exactly what many breeders recommend the pet bird owner do when negative behaviors are seen. No suggestion is made regarding fixing the problem – the owner is simply told to get it a mate, breed it, and keep one of the babies.

Experts On Everything?
So there are lots of theories about parrot behavior, but most of them are out-dated or simply incorrect. Some are sweeping generalizations based on the behaviors of a very small population of individuals. And from my experience, some of the worst information I have seen has been put forward by a small number of animal trainers who teach birds to perform tricks in shows – which apparently leads them to believe they are experts on ALL forms of parrot ownership. (I’ll talk more about them later.)

And the various conclusions drawn by these various sources can be fallacious when applied to individual pet birds, especially domestic bred birds, often leading to glaringly incorrect information being perpetuated as fact.

Basing behavior theories on sweeping generalizations is the method used when you hear broad statements about specific species of parrots, like "All African greys are good talkers." Now, most of us happen to know a non-talking African grey. This isn’t surprising, since a number of them simply don’t talk. And these unfortunate individuals are often "gotten rid of" because of that – I guess because their reputed talking ability is the only reason their owners bought them, instead of because of their intelligence and complex personalities. To my mind, this is like a woman deciding to get pregnant because she really likes baby clothes. As far as I am concerned, if the only reason someone wants a parrot is because of its potential talking ability, (s)he should buy a radio instead.

Another fallacy I hear all the time is that "All cockatoos are sweet and cuddly." Well, yes, a lot of cockatoos are sweet and cuddly. And a lot of African greys are sweet and cuddly. And a lot of macaws are sweet and cuddly. Why don’t we hear about them? But let me tell you, I also know SEVERAL cockatoos that I would NOT categorize as "sweet and cuddly," if you know what I mean. (After all, male ‘toos are famous for killing their mates, right? Why is it that humans never seem to think that violence could possibly be turned on them?)

Another example of parrot behavior myths is the one that states that "Lovebirds must be kept in pairs, because they don’t make good pets." This, of course, completely ignores the pet potential of a hand-raised lovebird – which is from my experience one of the most delightful and reasonably-priced of all the small parrots. I have a very dear friend whose name is Hamlin. Hamlin happens to be a peach-faced lovebird who has been boarding with me for the last several years, and he is truly delightful – an animated Easter egg, if there ever was one! Hamlin would dearly like to meet the person who proclaimed that lovebirds don’t make good pets, and he would also like every-one to understand that he wants his PERSON – NOT another lovebird! And he is only one of many lovebirds that I know who were raised with a firm and loving hand by humans who understand how necessary that is – and he is the norm, not the exception.

The Dreaded Sexual Maturity Thing

"Many parrots (especially Amazons) don’t make good pets after they reach sexual maturity, and need to be put in a breeding situation." This is a behavior myth that is repeated all the time, and from my experience, this is not necessarily true at all. I am a female human who suffers from PMS. My husband ALSO suffers from my PMS. And there have been times when he comes home to find me in the kitchen slamming cabinet doors. Now, if he should choose that moment to try to pick a fight with me, then that would be HIS problem, right? He would simply get his head ripped off.

But if from then on he never acted the same with me, if he acted unsure of me, then we would not still be together. And in a nutshell, I think that is what has happened with a lot of Amazons. The owner does not understand the bird’s body language and does not know what it means when an Amazon has its tail feathers fanned, its neck feathers up and it’s eyes flashing wildly. Now, anyone that knows anything about Amazons knows THAT bird is the avian equivalent to me slamming cabinet doors. In other words, this is NOT the time to try to start any meaningful exchanges. So, DON’T REACH FOR THAT BIRD!

But inexperienced owners might do just that, then not understand why quite suddenly they are bleeding. And because they didn’t recognize and understand the blatant warning signs the bird was displaying, they then decide that their bird is unpredictable and dangerous. From then on, they are afraid and hesitant with the parrot – and as we all know, people who are afraid and hesitant with parrots do not get along well with parrots. End result, the bird becomes cage-bound due to a lack of handling, and really does lose a lot of pet potential. But not so much due to the bird changing its behavior towards the human, but due to the human’s changing his/her response to the bird.

Bird Show Trainers

On the subject of people who make a living training birds to perform tricks in shows, I have nothing against that if the birds are properly handled and cared for. If a show is well done, I will enjoy it as much as the next person. But what does bother me is when a small number of these people then consider themselves expert in fields other than training birds to perform tricks in shows. As far as I am concerned, asking a bird trainer advice about pet birds is roughly equivalent to asking a circus lion tamer advice on how to litterbox train my cat.

Finding Good Information

To conclude and summarize all this: Many bappies are raised with absolutely no limits, and given no instruction (socialization) as to acceptable behaviors and their position within their human flock. If they then are allowed to sit above eye level on shoulders and on the tops of cages, allowed to make all of their own decisions (such as whether or not they wish to come out of their cage, or whether or not they want to get off a human’s shoulder) and allowed unsupervised reign outside of a cage, then this is a parrot that has inadvertently been given the nonverbal message that it is head of the flock. And their genetic information tells them that the head of the flock is supposed to tell their flock members (human or otherwise) what to do. So when their human flock doesn’t follow orders, then the frustrated parrot often screams and bites and sometimes even plucks. Not a happy picture, is it?

Well, don’t despair, because behavior problems aren’t necessarily permanent. And along with all the reams of misinformation out there, there is some good information, too. THE PET BIRD REPORT, for example, is an excellent source of information about pet birds. And good, up-to-date information on pet parrot behavior is useful to all of us. If you’re a breeder, you can learn how to properly socialize these marvelous bappies from the very beginning, so they understand where they belong in the flock. If you’re a veterinarian or veterinary technician, you can learn how to give good advice to your bird-owning clients. And if you’re a pet parrot person, then you can gain insight into the mysterious behaviors of your little feathered kids and learn how to establish a loving, firmly-guided relationship with your parrot that will enable decades and decades of enjoyable cohabitation.

Whichever you are, my best advice on parrots is to enjoy them and love them – and most importantly, to quote Chris Davis, love them for what they are – NOT for what you think they should be.