CAGE TERRITORIALITY
Why It Develops & What To Do About It

Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant

John has an adolescent parrot that he loves dearly, but a problem has been developing recently that he doesn't understand at all. When his bird is away from its cage it's a sweetheart, but near its cage, it turns into a monster -- lunging and biting when John or his wife reach for it. At first it only did this when it was on top of the cage, but now the behavior has expanded to the point that neither John or his wife can safely reach into the cage to feed and clean. The bird is also starting to get aggressive when it is playing on its jungle gym. John hasn't the foggiest idea why this is happening.

Guarding One's Turf
This behavior is called cage territoriality or cage dominance, and like many (most?) of the behaviors we see in captive parrots, it has a foundation in instinct. In the wild, a parrot must protect its territory from invasion not only by predators but also other parrots. Dr. Charles Munn, in his National Geographic article on macaws in the Peruvian Amazon ("Macaws: Winged Rainbows", Jan. 94), comments that "a contributing factor in the macaws' low reproduction rate [in the wild] is an acute housing shortage." An unprotected nest is often subject to a hostile takeover by another pair of parrots eager to start a family. So guarding one's territory is necessary to successfully raise a family and therefore fulfill the Prime Directive of propagating one's own species. John's parrot didn't exhibit this behavior before, because it was just a baby.

In working with clients, I like to use as an example the behavior of a pair of mockingbirds who made it on the news several times a couple of years ago. (It must have been a slow news week.) These birds had built a nest in a parking garage and they were dive bombing any humans who dared try to retrieve their cars. After describing the situation, I then point out just how small a mockingbird actually is [about 10" from beak to tail] compared to the size of a human. To say the least, this is a formidable instinctive drive!

Aberrant Behavior
In captivity we often see territorial behaviors that have become excessive, with the bird driving off not just strangers but other members of the household (other flock members) and even the person with whom the parrot is most bonded -- the equivalent of the bird driving its own mate away from the nest. Obviously, this is a serious behavior problem, which will seriously threaten the animal’s pet potential if allowed to go unchecked. It is also extremely common.

Some people feel that a pet parrot should be allowed this territorial behavior -- that its cage is its very own special place and it should be allowed to do as it pleases within that area. I emphatically do not agree.

Just as a human child should be allowed privacy in their own room, I feel a parrot should be allowed to have its moods -- and sometimes it will simply not be in the mood to interact with its human – it is playing happily by itself, it for example, or pondering a particularly tough concept of astral physics. An experienced parrot owner knows when their bird is not in the mood by simply watching its body language, and he/ she respects the bird's privacy and does not approach during these times.

However, privacy notwithstanding, I don't feel it is acceptable for a small child to be allowed to ban parents from his/her room -- nor do I think a pet parrot should be allowed to refuse their human flock entry into its "room" -- which is what John's parrot is doing.

If a person has a pair of breeding birds, that is a different story -- I would liken that to having a grown child visiting his parents with his wife -- at which point the rules change. In that case, I think the young adult's room should be private with the parents entering by invitation only.

Establishing Nurturing Dominance
A pet parrot that is excessively territorial is a bird who has been allowed to believe it outranks the humans in its flock, and is therefore, ordering these humans around. To get this little tyrant under control, the humans must establish a relationship of nurturing dominance or guidance (a la Sally Blanchard) by teaching the bird the commands of "up" and "down" to put controls on the bird's behavior. This simple and incredibly effective training technique was explained in detail in a separate article ("Nurturing Dominance: What It Is and How To Establish It").

As I explained in that article, the bird is removed from its cage and control is taught in daily training sessions that take place on a neutral perch in a neutral territory -- a perch (i.e. the back of a kitchen chair) and room (i.e. a guest room or bath) that the bird does not consider to be its own turf. (Trying to establish controls over a headstrong parrot while it is in, on or even within sight of its cage is an exercise in futility and a great way to get bitten.)

Once the bird is responding to the human's order by stepping onto his/her hand every time the person says Up and off the hand onto the perch every time with a Down, then the human can start moving the training perch out of the neutral area and into the area of the bird's cage. He/she needs to move the perch slowly -- maybe only a few inches at a time -- and then work again on the commands, making sure the bird follows them to the letter. To maintain consistency from then on, the person will ALWAYS use these commands whenever and wherever he/she is handling the bird.

Back on the Bird's Turf.....
Once in sight of the bird's cage, the training sessions often become more difficult, but the person should not lose heart.

With patience and consistency (and a little time), the bird will again respond to the commands that it followed beautifully when out of sight of its territory. Under NO circumstance should the human lose his/her temper (tempting though it may be at times), since that usually provides the drama that parrots love -- few things tickle them more than making their pet person mad enough to yell. After all, what a wonderful game! (I discussed the Drama Reward in another article.)

When the teacher and the pupil have at last worked their way back to the cage, the human should put the bird onto his perch in the cage with the Down command, then immediately pick him up again with the Up command. Doing this several times in a row will teach the bird that these commands work just as well inside the cage as out. This process should also be repeated on the cage top, as well as on and around any other place where the parrot hangs out.

New Patterns For In and Out of the Cage
From that point on, whenever the bird wants to be let out of its cage, it must step onto the person's hand when the human says Up. If it refuses, then it is not allowed out of the cage until it changes its mind and follows the command. Under no circumstance should the person simply open the cage door and walk away -- this will convince the parrot it is again in control of its life and the humans in its flock.

Once the bird has come out of the cage with the proper commands, if the human wishes, the parrot can be placed on top with the Down so it can go in and out at will. At the end of the day, the bird should be returned to his cage with a Down.

Altitude vs. Attitude
Always keep in mind that height is correlated directly with dominance in the mind of the companion parrot -- so a bird above eye level generally considers itself higher on the pecking order. This height significance must be considered when choosing the training perch, as well as with perch placement in a parrot’s cage. Aggressive birds should not be allowed to perch higher than the person’s chest level. The top of the bird's cage may not be a good place for the parrot to play if it starts getting delusions of superiority. A separate play area set on a low table usually solves this problem.

Even after the parrot is behaving itself around the cage (and everywhere else), the human should keep up training sessions every week or so, just to remind the bird that the rules are still in force. It is also critical that any other humans handling the bird should use the same commands in exactly the same manner -- ALWAYS using the Up to get the bird on his/her hand, and off the hand with a Down. Otherwise, the bird will become confused -- just as a human child does when two parents enforce different rules.

Also keep in mind that nothing is permanent in the mind of a parrot -- in the wild, there appears to be a constant push-pull going on within the flock, with challenges happening constantly. So the human should not be surprised when a previously well behaved parrot suddenly refuses a command -- it is just checking to see if the human is really in control. By insisting the command be followed, the human simply reaffirms that.

So by following these easy training techniques and handling their parrot in a firm, loving and consistent manner, John and his wife can get control of their headstrong bundle of feathers -- therefore regaining the loving relationship they used to enjoy.