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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
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
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
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
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
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