Companion Animals > Pet Care > Parrots > Handling

PARROTS & CHANGE
Is It REALLY So Dangerous??

Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant

In the twenty-three years that I have lived with Sam, 35+ year old female my blue and gold macaw, we've been through a lot of changes, the least of which was moving ten times. When I first started living with her, I was a full-time animal technician student and was home studying many hours per day. After graduation, I worked at a 24 hour veterinary emergency practice and my shift changed every three days. I endured that craziness for two years , then went to work for the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, supervising the small animal practicum for animal nursing students.

Sam for sale...??!?
I came very close to selling Sam four years later, when I first started working extremely long hours. That was about fifteen years ago, when I took on supervising a second department at the U of P Vet School. I had loved parrots for years and was also fascinated with other exotic animals like reptiles, so when I was offered a chance to create and supervise an exotic animal department I could not pass it up. I began working 10-12 hour days, and was on call every night and week-end.

For the first time in the eight years Sam and I had been together, I felt she received much too little attention for a prolonged period of time. She had her radio to listen to, and plenty of wooden toys to chew in her 4' x 3’ x 3' cage, but she didn't have the companionship to which she was accustomed. Needless to say, I felt very guilty and came extremely close to finding another home for her.

However, I didn't. I loved her - I did not want to face life without her.

Life Settles Down a Little
After a couple of years of working myself into a physical collapse, I left the U of P and went to work for an avian practitioner. My working hours settled into something more "normal", and I had a lot more time again to spend with Sam. I even had days off! Much to my delight, I found that she and I were able to pick up where we left off -- in other words, she was still my best friend and she forgave me for my neglect.

Craziness Strikes Again
Two years later, I cofounded an exotic animal practice and took on the job as hospital manager. I went back to working ten to fourteen hour days, eight days a week and carried a beeper for emergencies. The rare times that I was home I was so tired all I could do was sit and stare at the wall. Sam had her physical needs taken care of, but was again emotionally neglected.

Working For Myself
After about two years of that madness, another change! I started my own boarding and grooming business, then began to do behavior work with parrots -- with lots of free lance writing and lots of telephone consultations. Now my office is in my home, and I have more time again to spend with Sam. And once again, she was there waiting for me, still my best buddy and glad to welcome me back.

The point of this story is simple: once you have established a good, solid relationship with a parrot based on love and good care and nurturing dominance, then that relationship becomes like a good marriage. True, Sam did not get as much attention as she wanted and needed for large chunks of time, but that did not mean that she gave up on me. She tolerated life's fickle inconstancies, and remained my friend.

Parrots stressed by change?
Many pet bird magazines go on and on about how stressful change is to pet birds. The same message is preached constantly -- a concerned bird owner should do everything in their power to keep routines the same every day. To quote a regular column in BIRD TALK, "Living With Birds" from the August, '93 issue, "They [birds] do not like change in their surroundings, and stress from that change will shorten lives."

I agree that parrots, like humans, are creatures of habit and routine. Like humans, they need to know that their basic needs of food and shelter will be fulfilled on a daily basis. But I have found from personal and from my clients' experiences that parrots are much more adaptable than most people seem to think.

For example, I have been boarding birds in my home for many years. Many people initially want me to go into their homes to care for their pets, because they are convinced that changing the bird's surroundings would be too stressful. In the past when I had more time, I would do this but discouraged it -- I am not as comfortable only seeing an animal for a limited time per day. But when birds stay with me, I own a good scale and weigh new boarders daily to be certain of adequate food consumption - and not once have I encountered any appreciable weight loss. Of the hundreds of birds I have boarded in my home, most have actually gained weight during their stay.

Taught by the flock...
Sam, as a wild-caught bird, was probably taught to adapt to change by her parents and the rest of her flock. After all, I think it is highly unlikely that everything is routine and unchanging in the wild environments these birds have lived in for thousands of years. What with changes in weather, food sources, etc., about the only real constant might be when the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night. Wild parrots may return to the same feeding area day after day, but if the food source has dried up or a predator is lurking about, the wild parrot must be adaptable and come up with alternatives. It's survival depends on it.

Problems with Domestics
As an avian behavior consultant, I find that serious problems arise with domestic-bred parrots that have been protected from change by their well-meaning human parents. Without exposure to change, the young parrot never learns to be adaptable. As a result, the parrot becomes inflexible -- and a creature that is inflexible is much more vulnerable in the long run. After all, we know that parrots have the capacity for extremely long lives -- as long as eighty-plus years for the Amazons. And who among us feels that we can provide an unchanging routine for eighty-plus years? I know that I can't.

So when change does come, as it al-ways will, these young domestics often don't have the flexibility to cope -- leading to classic behavior problems like feather plucking, biting and excessive screaming.

Teaching Them That Change Can Be Fun
Consequently, I think that parrots must be taught to accept change in their lives, not be protected from it. Filling a bird’s life with interesting changes in location, people, toys, and food will help produce a mentally healthy, well-socialized and self-confident companion parrot.

So instead of keeping to rigid patterns, parrot companions should be slowly introduced to changes that are non-threatening. Move their cages periodically, and rotate toys every few days. Take them into different rooms in your home. Take them for rides in the car, and visit different friends. Send them to a "slumber party" -- to stay overnight with a special human friend. Take them with you on vacation, if possible. Offer tremendous variety in their diet, so they don't become rigid in their eating habits. In other words, teach them that change is fun and interesting and non-threatening.

Peace of Mind
Then you won't have to worry what will happen if unforeseeable changes occur in your life -- emergency hospitalizations, business trips, job changes, etc.. You won't feel that you have to find another home for your parrot if you suddenly have less time to devote to it, because it will have learned to be adaptable. You will have taught your little feathered friend how to cope, so you will have peace of mind when you face, as we all do, an unpredictable future.