Owning a parrot is one of the most rewarding
experiences a person can have. But like all things which are worth doing,
they are worth doing well. Birds are very special beings. They are blessed
with a high level of intelligence and capable of enriching their owner's
lives in hundreds of ways. The owner who takes the time to understand this
specialness and treats his bird with gentleness, compassion and love will
be rewarded with joy, love, trust and an unforgettable relationship in
I've worked with birds for many years and have learned to
see the world from the bird's view. Loving, parental relationships, based
upon gentle interaction, perceptiveness and consideration of a bird's
reality are the key. If you want a gentle bird, he must be treated gently
and with consideration. Not only is a bird a lifetime companion but he can
and will learn his whole life. Cast yourself as the parental figure and
deal with your bird consistently, fairly and gently.
other prey animals, are suspicious and cautious. They are not domesticated
animals. They are, in most instances, one generation removed from the
wild. Inborn and inbred instincts are fully intact. Birds, unlike some
other animals, don't live only in the moment. Their curiosity,
intelligence, memory and emotions are shaped by the past. They think
differently, but that difference is not inferior.
Birds are amoral
- they feel no regret after eating your computer keyboard or dismantling
your mouse. They cannot be shamed into "good" behavior. They are what they
are, albeit tame, loving and trusting with those they respect and love.
This love and respect must be earned - it won't come in a day, a week, or
perhaps even a month, but it will come.
BEGINNING YOUR RELATIONSHIP
Initially move slowly and perform needed tasks around him
deliberately. If an item must be carried past him, hold the item below
waist level. Talk softly and reassuringly, make frequent eye contact.
Every time you pass the cage, speak to him - it can be nonsense - the tone
is all important.
Socialization, in many ways, comes from the
emotions and the mind of the handfeeder or owner. When dealing with birds,
the harmony of your interior emotions and external actions will be
reflected in the behavior of your bird. Never approach a bird quickly or
with excitement. If you are anxious, in a hurry, impatient - stop, breathe
deeply and allow your emotions to subside. Birds are empathic and very
sensitive creatures who pick up on your emotions.
settling-in period, begin more extensive and intensive touching. The head,
nape, under the wings, and toes are the areas they are accustomed to have
petted. Birds like to have their toes gently squeezed and massaged.
Another benefit is the added sense of security they feel when perched on
the hand. You will be better able to control the bird if you "pin" the
toes. Some birds do not accept pinning from the new owner and careful
attention should be paid to the bird's reaction to pinning the toes.
It is important for the owner to initiate frequent interaction. This
avoids the sight of a bird clinging to the bars of the cage calling for
attention. If the bird is spoken to and acknowledged dozens of times a
day, he won't feel it necessary to resort to what may become unpleasant
efforts to gain your attention.
Many short periods of attention are
more desirable than one or two long sessions. The short interactions are,
by nature, on an irregular schedule. Irregularity is part of the necessary
conditioning so that the bird doesn't come to expect a certain amount of
attention at any one particular time. If you will take the time to do
these things in a conscious manner, the payoff will be a bird who knows he
is loved and cherished because he has seen so many examples of your love.
Be considerate. If the bird is eating, grooming, napping, playing or
otherwise safely occupied, wait until you catch his eye and say in a
coaxing manner - "Would you like to come with me?" - "Would you like your
head scratched?" If you interrupt in a questioning manner, he likely will
want a ride or a tickle. Don't feel rejected if he prefers to continue his
present activity. Don't expect him to give up an enjoyable activity unless
he wants to do so.
DEFINING THE ROLES
A bird needs to
understand what is expected from him as well as what he can expect. All
companion animals are comfortable with reasonable limits and reasonable
predictable behavior from their human companions. "Y" action from the bird
produces "C" behavior from the human.
Once the bird accepts the
owner as the guide, the teacher, the parental figure, the mentor, both of
you can be comfortable in your home and the space you share. The
relationship is not master/slave. A bird will never be able to accept that
because it presupposes the bird will behave perfectly within the master's
limits. Unlike any other companion animal, birds can be themselves
(parrots), be true to their identity as individuals and still have a warm,
deep, satisfying parental relationship with those they love and trust.
Speaking softly to a bird and slowly putting your head around the
corner and saying, "I seeeeee you." reassures him that the flock is nearby
and he's not alone. Birds understand the concept that a thing or person
still exists even though it is not in view. Calling softly to the bird in
reply to a contact call reassures the bird he's still in touch with the
flock. At first the bird will need a little more reassurance since he is
in a strange place with strangers.
THE THREE MAJOR RULES
Three things the bird must learn - he should not bite, he should step up
and down when asked and he should not roam the house.
You can encourage certain behaviors with treats
but, as with other animals, praise and love will set a better tone for
your future relationship.
Never strike your bird's beak with
anything. Don't grab the bird's beak - some species recognize this as
aggression. If he bites, place him on his cage or playstand in a matter of
fact way. He will quickly learn that biting results in separation from
you. Learning a bird's body language and avoiding situations when he will
bite is far preferable to separation from you. Reward good behavior,
ignore bad behavior.
Some people advocate potentially dangerous and
psychologically damaging techniques for dealing with objectionable
behavior in birds. Never drop your bird to the floor when he bites. Birds
have hollow bones which makes this physically dangerous and sends a
devastating psychological message. How can your bird trust you if you drop
him to the floor?
Do not use the cage as a punishment area. Do not
put your bird in a carrier or small cage in a remote location as
punishment. Do not put your bird in a bathtub or shower stall as
punishment. Do not cover the cage as punishment.
Another bad technique is the "earthquake" in
which you drop the hand/arm the bird is sitting on several inches and
wobble him when he is doing a forbidden thing. Once again, the bird will
not feel safe or secure if you "earthquake" him. We have overcome the
inborn reluctance to feeling safe on the floor with our domestic babies.
Using a technique that leads your bird to think he is falling does nothing
to build trust. Your clipped bird can't fly away to avoid injury.
good technique for controlling birds who go after buttons, zippers, rings,
ears, jewelry, etc. is place the bird on a small stand that is beside you.
Silently count to 5 and replace the bird where he previously was. Be
persistent in discouraging this behavior. Rather than a bird hearing a
steady stream of "No" "No" "No", it's better to seem to ignore what he's
doing and place him on the stand.
Fingers are always forbidden.
Even when the babies are just exploring, I seem not to notice but gently
remove my finger from their beaks and offer a bit of food, a toy, a kiss
or a rub on the outside of the beak. Beaks are very sensitive and birds
often enjoy this type of touching.
Never strike a bird no matter
the provocation. They will neither forgive or forget. Birds' bodies, with
their hollow bones throughout, are equipped for flight, not fight. A
domestic baby who has known only love and gentleness may never recover
from physical punishment or punitive aloneness. It may break the spirit of
the more fragile - in most it will produce an aggressive biting bird who
fears that he will die with each confrontation.
Never tease your
bird. No roughness, no rowdy behavior, no tug-of-war or ruffling the
feathers the wrong way except on the head, nape, under the jaw.
Stepping Up and Down
Most domestic baby birds have a rudimentary
awareness of concept of the Up and Down requests learned from the breeder.
At every feeding, the babies, who are too young and weak to actually step
up or down, should hear UP or DOWN each time they are picked up or
returned to the brooder. Reinforce previously learned lessons, request
your bird to step up by using the "Up" command and offer your hand. If he
doesn't step onto your hand, you can pick up the two front toes on either
foot, support his weight with your hand and lift the bird slowly and
gently straight up. Repeat the "Up" request and praise him when he raises
his other foot onto your hand. Request "Up" softly but not loudly or
sternly. Don't say "up" in a questioning way.
Always request "up"
when he is in his cage and bring him out. The cage is his home but you as
the parental figure have a right to enter his home but he expects any
objection from him to be respected.
When he is returned to his cage
or placed on a play area or a stand, command "down". Place the bird's tail
behind the perch and never let go of the second foot until the first foot
is securely on the perch. He will step off in a backward fashion and he
depends on you to see that he is safely on the perch before you relinquish
The bird should learn that his
territory is defined to be: on you, on his cage, in his cage or on the
playstand. The young ones may have to be returned to these areas 10,000
times the first year. It may be inconvenient at times to enforce this
rule, but it must be done for his safety's sake. A bird only needs to be
electrocuted once. Be matter-of-fact but replace the bird in a safe area.
His roaming may include chewing on the baseboards or furniture. The young
one explores because his instincts tell him that his survival depends on
knowing his environment.
A bird perceives all he can see as his
territory. A bird who is exposed to all areas of the house is intelligent
enough to realize that he cannot "defend" the whole house. The territorial
imperative can be significantly reduced by using this strategy. A bird
exposed to many new safe experiences, locations and people will be a
self-confident unafraid bird.
When you begin
touching, do so very softly and gently. A bird fears and is intimidated by
a heavy touch. Birds can be gently led to accept touching on the back and
the long feathers on the wings and my resist because they know
instinctively are helpless to escape (fly away) from a predator while
being so constrained. They may resist persistently so leave the areas
I begin touching the babies from the first feeding - I use
a very gentle touch, barely touching the body. In the beginning, I gently
cup the bird's body while holding the sides of his jaws or under the beak
when he is being handfed. When they are a little older, I stroke them from
above the nares in a soft gently cupping motion over the back of the body
down to the tail. Even then they squirm and wiggle and it takes many weeks
for them to accept this touching. When the birds are a little older, I
begin placing both palms on the sides of the body under the wings, raise
the wings and kiss the back between the wings. I also raise the wings and
kiss the side of the body.
Don't attempt these intimacies at first
but begin to let the bird know through soft words and a reassuring
attitude that he can come to expect pleasure from you. Go a little past
his comfort zone. Then stop, still talking and reassuring him. Return to
the touches he accepts readily. Don't touch the areas he's uncomfortable
with for several hours or days. Go slow, as you won't regret the time
taken later. Pay very close attention when you go beyond his comfort level
- stop immediately when he reacts. Done correctly with attention to his
body language and comfort level, you will have a loving, confiding,
When the bird bows his head and ruffles his
head and nape, he can be petted from nape to forehead (against the way the
feathers grow). The head, nape, and jaw area are the only areas the
feathers should be petted against the grain.
with a towel on a bed can be beneficial. The towel should cover the
owner's face rather than the bird's head in the first phase of the game.
This game should initially be from the front and can progress to the bird
standing on the towel and the towel being brought up over the bird's head
- first from the front and then from the back. The towel should be opened
slowly so the bird can see the owner's face and hear the cue "peek-a-boo".
This may help when he has to be toweled for wing clipping or at the vet.
TOUCHING BY OTHERS
Strangers may not touch or hold your bird
unless they are instructed in the proper manner. Trusted friends and
adults in your home can sit in a circle on the floor so the bird may be
passed from one to another. Before each is passed the bird, that person
should speak reassuringly in a low coaxing voice that promises safety and
pleasure. Each should speak softly but firmly using the up command and
make soft eye contact. Explain to each of them how to pet a bird. The more
informed gentle humans a bird is exposed to, the more likely he is to be a
friendly bird who expects pleasure from strangers. He will willingly go to
strangers if he has been socialized carefully in this manner. "Pass the
bird" and the "peek-a-boo" games were first articulated by bird
behaviorist Sally Blanchard.
ADOLESCENCE - A TIME OF TRANSITION
The first two years are critical. At about 18 months of age, the bird
will begin pulling away somewhat. Be consistent and gentle with him at
this time. Emotional separating is a natural milestone. He is no longer a
baby and his relationship with you will change slightly. He may not be as
accepting of the intimate full body caressing. Give him a little space but
under no circumstances lessen your time or attention.
are less interested in physical intimacy but all species should be offered
the chance to enjoy the pleasure many birds get from such intimacy. Birds
are individuals - some will enjoy more touching, some less.
may last a couple of months - he may be more interested in having you
preen him. Choose a group of nape feathers, get down to the skin level and
gently pull a separate feather through your thumb and forefinger - go to
the next feather and do the same thing.
If the bird has been
lovingly and correctly managed, by the time he reaches 18 months of age,
he will be a well-behaved, loving, confident, gentle companion for the
rest of your life.
At this time, some birds begin to refuse to
step "up" to come from the cage. A bird at this time should be offered the
choice of coming from the cage on the "up" request or letting him come
from the cage by himself. Respect his choice and give him another chance
Don't feel rejected at his temporary change
of attitude. In the wild he would be part of the juvenile flock and
interested in assuming his rightful place in it (at the top of the pecking
order, of course!) This short period is analogous to the terrible twos one
experiences with human children but isn't as bad as the awfulness of
puberty in human children. It passes quickly and your loving relationship
will resume, deepen and become richer with experience and time.
may think these suggestions are a tall order, but your bird will likely
outlive you and think what kind of life he would have if he were not a
well-behaved, trusting and accepting adult. A well-loved well-behaved
companion bird will be a welcome member of your family. A bird is forever
(almost) companion and he deserves the very best you and your breeder can
offer. Make arrangements in your will for your bird. Most of the larger
species can live 40+ years. Some smaller birds can a natural life span of
20 years with good care and a good diet. Greys and macaws can live for
50+, given regular health care and a nutritious varied diet. Some Amazons
have lived past 100 years.
The most important way you can show your
love is to allow your bird to be a parrot. He is not a perfect little
robot who will respond in only one way to a particular stimuli. Parrots
are very complex animals with complex reasons why they behave as they do.
If you are a perfectionist, you will have to concentrate this inclination
in some other part of your life - don't expect perfection or perfect
behavior even if you behave perfectly toward the bird.
You may find
that other methods work better for you and your bird. Whatever you choose
to do, however, must be firmly based on a relationship of mutual trust,
respect, and love. My advice is based on my experience, research and a
common sense approach. As Steve Martin (respected trainer and behaviorist)
tells us: "The best approach is to never make the bird do anything it
doesn't want to do, but find ways to use Positive Reinforcement to
encourage the bird to do what you want him to do".
problems or inappropriate behavior to accumulate or escalate. Don't
hesitate to call your breeder, your avian vet, an avian behaviorist, or an
experienced bird keeper regarding temporary or minor behavioral or health
problems... or for recommendations to professionals for your more serious
concerns. Donít take any advise that recommends a dominance strategy. Find
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