Avian Expert Articles

The Optimal Social Environment for Your Parrot

The Social Climate

The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions –
the little soon forgotten charities of a kiss or smile,
a kind look, a heartfelt compliment, and the countless
infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1828

SunConureOutsideA discussion of optimal environments for parrots cannot ignore the issue of social climate. However, as humans living in a busy society, this is an issue that we do largely ignore in our own lives. We have to. So many of us live in cities too populated for our tastes, or in families wherein too much animosity exists. We work at jobs in which we are treated as if we do not matter. Our feelings are expendable. We have to disregard our own personal feelings if we are to keep our homes, our jobs and our families…or at least we think we have to. Thus, we have evolved into a way of living in which we largely ignore our feelings about the social climate of the work place and even our homes.

No so with our parrots. Parrots are social creatures. They are flock animals, traveling and feeding together as a group. The majority of the activities in which they engage are done as a group. As prey animals, the health and integrity of the flock is essential to their ability to survive. However, the flock brings to a single parrot many other things besides feelings of safety and security. The flock provides opportunity for frequent and variant social interaction, learning skills, and just good fun.

The emotional and physical health of the flock is therefore of paramount significance to them and critical to their feelings of safety. Thus, they are masters at measuring this from watching the other flock members. This does not change just because they live in our homes, rather than in the wild.

Both positive and negative elements of our home’s social climate can have a significant impact on our parrots. The most extreme example of this would be the female African grey parrot that destroys her feathers, critical to her survival in the wild, solely because of the constant anxiety and fear that she senses from her owner, who remains in an abusive relationship.

The History of Skepticism

There is historical basis for skepticism regarding the emotional lives of animals and birds, as well as their intelligence. This skepticism has had its roots in an event that occurred in the early 1900s and concerned a German mathematics professor and his horse, Clever Hans.i This professor had taught Hans spelling, counting, simple arithmetic, color and musical theory. He believed his horse a prodigy because Hans was able to correctly answer questions designed to test his knowledge by tapping his foot the correct number of times in response. The originally skeptical scientific community was eventually convinced, and agreed that Clever Hans was a genius.

An experimental psychologist named Oskar Pfungst eventually exposed the true nature of Hans’ gifts. After intensive study he proved that Hans was merely reacting to subtle visual cues from his trainer and observers. If observers did not know the correct answer to a question posed to Hans, or if Hans was unable to see their faces, he could not answer even the simplest question correctly. The horse had been taking his cues from almost imperceptible shifts of body posture or facial expression in members of the audience, which occurred due to their involuntary relaxation of tension when Clever Hans reached the correct number of taps in response to a question.

Humiliated by being fooled, the scientific community reacted to this discovery by no longer entertaining open-minded investigation into the animal mind, or animal emotions. Until very recently, skepticism regarding the emotions and intelligence of animals has been a common and widely held attitude.

Fortunately, however, this is changing due to the investigation of many animal researchers, among them Donald Griffin, author of The Question of Animal Awareness. Thus, we are once again taking a more open-minded approach to evaluating the emotional lives of other species, and nowhere is this more appropriate than with our companion parrots. At the same time that this shift in attitude has taken place, other researchers have been investigating the essence of human emotions and thoughts, and the energies created by these. Some of their findings, which follow, will also bring light to this discussion.

Emotions Have Energy

William Collinge provides an elegant discussion of human emotions and how they translate into measurable and tangible energies in his book,Subtle Energy. Dr. Collinge writes, “Earlier this century, Albert Einstein showed through physics what the sages have taught for thousands of years: everything in our material world — animate and inanimate — is made of energy, and everything radiates energy. The earth is one enormous energy field – in fact, a field of fields. The human body is a microcosm of this – a constellation of many interacting and interpenetrating energy fields.”ii

He goes on to discuss many studies proving this statement, one of which was performed by Rollin McCraty at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California.iii McCraty and his colleagues found that the effects of our thoughts and emotions on the heart could be seen in the waveforms that show up in electrocardiograms. Stress, depression, anxiety or frustration shows up in an irregular wave pattern. A state of calm or peace produces a waveform that is “smoother and more coherent.” Dr. Collinge finishes his report stating, “As you might expect, our heart signal does not stop at the skin, but radiates into the space around us. The field of the heart can actually be measured four or five feet away with a magnetometer. Since the wave forms of this field change with our thoughts and emotions, you can see how it is possible that with our magnetic sensitivity, we can sense ‘bad vibes’ or ‘good vibes’ from someone around us and why we feel uncomfortable around someone who is angry or agitated, depressed, or fearful.”

Dr. Collinge is not alone is his assessment of the manner in which our emotions affect the energy that we transmit to those around us. In his discussion of the principles behind the relatively new science ofvibrational medicine, Richard Gerber states, “This theoretical perspective is based upon the understanding that the molecular arrangement of the physical body is actually a complex network of interwoven energy fields … There is a hierarchy of subtle energetic systems that coordinate electrophysiologic and hormonal function as well as cellular structure within the physical body … These unique energy systems are powerfully affected by our emotions and level of spiritual balance as well as by nutritional and environmental factors.”iv

Parrots & Children … Sensitive “Receivers”

One of the underlying principles in family therapy is that children are very sensitive to the tensions or underlying problems in their parents’ marriage, and that much so-called acting out behavior is unconsciously aimed at restoring balance or harmony. Children are quite sensitive to the energies of others. Even most adults would admit that being in the presence of someone who is feeling love and tenderness feels very different from being in the presence of someone in a state of agitation.

Parrots are as sensitive as children to the energies emitted by the people around them. I believe that parrots, like children, can also become the symptom bearers of imbalance and disharmony in their owners, or the entire the household, and that some screaming and feather-destructive behaviors fall into this category. I remember a statement that parrot behavior consultant Chris Davis once made to the effect that African greys will “show us our own issues.” The same is true, more or less, of all parrots, although I believe it to be truer of African grey parrots.

Further, it is also widely recognized that those who offer emotional support and/or physical care to people, such as therapists and nurses, often burn out. Once this occurs, they distance themselves from their clients’ emotional neediness to the point of loosing effectiveness in their jobs. They may have entered the profession with enthusiasm but were unable to conserve their own vital energy. As a result, this was gradually sapped by continual interaction with those who were sick or had low energy.

If a person is depressed or sick, he will absorb energy from those around him who have an abundance. This is why it feels good to be around someone of high energy, as it raises our own.v From my observations, parrots that sit around all day are often involuntary “receivers” for low or negative energies prevalent in their environments. Further, they have no relief from this and little exercise that might allow them to work off some of the tension this can create.

Happy People Make for Happy Parrots

I have repeatedly had the same conversation with different clients. I will suggest that perhaps the stress they are experiencing could be affecting their parrots. Typically, the reply states, “Oh … but I’m not acting stressed!” I believe that the work of Dr. Collinge and Dr. Gerber, coupled with the story of Clever Hans and his ability to perceive subtle changes in human body language and facial expression, should convince us that we do not have to act stressed for our parrots to perceive those feelings.

Accordingly, I will assert that our parrots are extremely sensitive to the subtle changes in our own emotions, as well as the emotional health of our households. Simply stated, emotions have energy. Any actions we can take to insure greater happiness and harmony within our households and ourselves will significantly benefit our parrots. Parrots enjoy the greatest emotional and physical health when living in happy households.

Elements of Wild Society

Further, there are practices that increase our parrots’ sense of safety, as well as their satisfaction with their social experience in our homes. In seeking to discover these, we must use as our initial guide the bits of information we have about parrots’ lives in the wild, plus our imagination regarding their wild flock’s social experience.

What might be some elements of a parrot’s emotional life in the wild? We know that, as prey animals, feelings of safety are crucial to them. We have learned from studies of wild behavior that parrots participate in group interaction with seeming enthusiasm, which is evidenced by physical play, mutual vocalization, and group movement and interaction. >From observations made in the wild and amongst the parrots in captivity, we also understand the strength of the pair bond and the affection that can exist between parrots that are producing young.

Cues can also be obtained from observing their lives with us. Watching young African greys learn to fly and land skillfully provides an awareness of their satisfaction and enjoyment in achievement. The happy tail wag and fling of the head at the end of a successful flight makes this apparent. Parrots obviously need to feel competent. They need know if they are successful in our homes, and if we like and appreciate them. In the book Wild Minds this is underscored in a discussion of parrots in general, and especially the grey parrot, by the simple statement, “As it is for human infants, imitation is fueled by a clear social payoff.”vi Parrots look to their human caretakers for information as to whether or not they are successful.

Predictability & Rituals

Our challenge then is to attempt to replicate some of these essential elements in the domestic environment. When we examine what might make a parrot feel safe and secure, aside from wise arrangement of the physical elements in the environment, the matter of predictability comes to mind. When we might choose to try to imagine a parrot’s life in the wild, rarely do we see him in relation to his surroundings. However, patterns in nature and the behavior of other animals are supremely predictable. The sun rises and sets predictably on schedule. Other species of birds, as well as ground dwelling animals, will enter the area and feed at certain times of each day. It is perhaps only the behavior of predators that carries the quality of wild unpredictability.

The simple addition of rituals to our interactions with our parrots can perhaps serve to reproduce some of this most appreciated predictability in the domestic environment. These are especially useful during the morning and evening social times that many of us enjoy. My own parrots take apparent delight in the simple rituals I have created. In the morning, I uncover each individual. In an affectionate behavioral duet, I have a few brief moments in interaction with each parrot that is always the same. The parrots have been as much responsible for participating in the creation of these as I have been. Over time, through intimate and loving fun, we have taught each other a subtle duet of greeting.

Each greeting is unique to each individual. With my African grey, Rollo, I must wait until he yells his typical, sing-songy “hell-o-oh” before taking him out of his cage, whereupon he throws himself upside down in my hand and I raspberry his tummy. My little Senegal, Ruby, simply crawls up under my chin for head scratches and purrs like a kitten. As I place her on top of her cage to await breakfast, she ducks her chin quickly in a silent request for one more scratch, and I am happy to oblige. My blue-and gold macaw, Golding, is always antsy from hunger in the morning, manifesting some food anxiety … a lasting vestige of his too-early weaning perhaps. As I uncover him, I greet him with the question, “Do you feel like a nut?”, followed by the nonsensical observation, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, and sometimes you don’t!” as I hand him a walnut or other healthy and immediate beginning to his breakfast. And so it goes. I travel around the room, extending my unique greeting to each individual and always in the same order, never deviating from my established pattern in any way. Their delight in this morning ritual could not be more evident, as each rushes to play their part.

Our flock language also serves to create a measure of predictability for our group of parrots. I will feed the birds, always in the same order, saying the same things. “Do you want some water?” “Are you hungry? Here’s your breakfast.” When I leave the house, I proclaim, “Mama’s goin’ bye-bye. I’ll be back!” Once again, their behavior indicates significant satisfaction with my predictability. As far as I can tell, there is nothing that brings more happiness to some parrots than to be able to predict what their favorite human will do.

Paying Attention

We can re-create the sense of security inherent in living within a flock more directly by paying attention to what scares our parrots. It is important that we watch their body language for indications of alarm or fear, take this reaction seriously, and seek to reassure them verbally, as well as physically. Many things about our world can be frightening to a parrot. After all, it is our world, not theirs. I have noticed that many phobic parrots are owned by people who tend not to pay attention, nor take their bird’s fears seriously, or who simply can’t read the body language of a frightened bird. They don’t think ahead about what will be likely to make the bird afraid. If they do notice, they do not respond with a nurturing approach, out of a simple lack of understanding of the importance of doing so. For instance, it is a simple enough matter to ask the friend wearing the frightening baseball cap to remove it when he enters our home.

It is also important to guard our parrots in whatever way we can against unpredictability that is frightening. Violence, anger resulting in loud noises or too-swift movements … all can be unsettling to a parrot. When it’s a grey parrot, the resulting anxiety can often be cumulative, resulting in increased behavior problems over time.

The Flock Dynamic

The delight in group interaction can also be re-created in our homes, especially those with multiple parrots. In the morning, my Double yellow-headed Amazon will often beat me to the punch, by asking with loud enthusiasm, “So, do you want some music?!” And on goes the stereo to play their musical favorites while I prepare their breakfast. All react with much vocalizing and ready participation in this special social time. Predictably, I usually play one of several children’s favorites by the Canadian artist, Raffi. His music touches the heart of adults, children and parrots alike.

I have found I can create social interactions in the flock by sharing a morsel of what I’m eating with each parrot. Predictably, I travel in the same order, dishing out a piece of this or a piece of that.

Homes with one parrot will have a greater challenge to re-create a flock dynamic, but such owners can certainly include their parrot in social human rituals, such as grooming or preening in the bathroom, and enjoying meals together. Much use can also be made from visits from friends. We take this opportunity to order pizza and this is shared by all, humans and parrots alike.

Parrots in the wild are playful and have even been observed to make snowballs and play with them.vii If we allow ourselves to become more playful, our parrots will respond happily and with appreciation of the exuberance and abandon such silliness can manifest. Physical play, such as tossing things back and forth, can also be appreciated. However, the majority of my parrots adore it most when we engage in mutual silliness. There is nothing my Amazon loves more than when I stand by his cage, calling him over dramatically saying, “Come ‘ere you! Come ‘ere you sexy Amazon. Give me a kiss!”

The Matter of Affection

The affection our parrots need in their interactions with us is an ephemeral matter to contemplate, in terms of how we choose to recreate this. We must maintain a balance in our interactions with them so that they do not come to see us as “mate.” However, like a small child, they are hungry for our love and attention. For most, this is not a difficult thing to offer, most effectively provided in small doses. I usually do not spend large quantities of time with each parrot, interacting in a close physical manner. I neither have the time for this, nor do I want to encourage the type of bond which this kind of attention often produces. Instead, I will travel around the room several times a day, showing them my love in small ways for a few minutes at a time.

They seem to thrive on this type of frequent, cheerful, loving, and silly interaction. Again, parrots know how we feel about them. If we take the time to get in touch with how much we love them, they will understand this however we choose to display it.

The Social Pay-off

In their greed to obtain our attention, parrots are like small children. They want a reaction to their behavior. They are happier when this is an appreciative reaction, but they will make do with a negative reaction as well. Psychologist Fitzhugh Dodson wrote in How to Discipline With Love, about what he calls the “Law of the Soggy Potato Chip,” using the analogy that children would rather have a soggy potato chip than no potato chip at all. Similarly, they would rather have negative attention than no attention at all.viii And, so it is with parrots.

In attempting to provide the optimal social environment for our parrots, it is important that we train ourselves to catch them in the act of being good. This is especially critical with young parrots. Any desirable behavior – including eating, bathing, playing with toys, vocalizing in pleasant ways – should be noticed and rewarded with effusive praise and attention. Thus, the parrot will have clear guidance as to how it can be successful in its life with us. When negative behaviors manifest, it is often best to simply ignore these as a first reaction. As Mr. Hauser illustrated above, the social payoff is a powerful reward for behavior. It is important that we structure any social payoffs we are providing, so our parrots have the opportunity to learn the behaviors that will lead to success in captivity.

On a subtler note, frequent are the stories of parrots that are empathic enough with their owners to recognize when one of their behaviors causes irritation in the human. Thus, we must also guard against involuntary teaching. Our emotional reactions to a parrot’s behavior, even if not manifested overtly, are often enough to encourage the behavior if the parrot is bored and lacks other challenges in his life. As with Clever Hans, our own involuntary and subtle body language is at work in these situations. The only path out of the downward spiral between parrot and human that such a dynamic can cause, is to work with our own emotions inwardly. It simply never works to hand a parrot the power to upset you.

The Importance of Learning

It is equally important that we not flag in our efforts to allow our parrots opportunities to learn new skills, since learning is critical to growth in all species. It is important to provide focused attention necessary to teach tricks, skills, or verbal labels. This will go a long way toward balancing a parrot’s emotional life so they can benefit from the pleasant feelings an intelligent animal feels with successful accomplishment.

I believe the last two techniques: providing positive social payoffs for desirable behavior and teaching new skills — are the two most powerful methods we can use to keep ourselves firmly in the position of flock leader because each patterns the parrot to look to us for guidance and instruction. This sets the tone for a deeper relationship, wherein the parrot comes to trust and rely on the human caregiver rather than simply becoming obedient. Once again, with parrots as with children, being able to rely on another for guidance as well as care will create a greater feeling of security.

Expressions of Love

Lastly, one of the best things we can do for a parrot is to look at him, and say, “I love you. You are the most magnificent creature I have ever seen. I am grateful for your presence in my life, and I will never forsake you.”

These are broad statements, yet I’m sure they are not unlike those that wild parrots convey to their mates daily. The measure of difficulty we might have in saying them is only a manifestation of our distance from nature, our dissociation from all things wild. I write often about the lessons parrots teach us, and this is a good example. The above statements spring to my lips unbidden in response to my parrot companions.

I am grateful to feel that emotion. It makes me a better person. And the energy behind that emotion is not lost on my parrots. They know they are in my heart to stay … that I will not forsake them.

When we can feel that emotion toward a companion parrot, it is difficult to say who is more the winner, parrot or person. The emotional resources necessary to make such declarations are deep and …”wildish.” And isn’t this the direction in which we’d like to grow as humans, anyway?

i Gould, James L and Carol Grant. The Animal Mind. New York, NY: Scientific American Library, 1999: 1

ii Collinge, William. Subtle Energy. New York, MY: Warner Books, 1998: 2

iii Ibid: 47

iv Gerber, M.D., Richard. Vibrational Medicine. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1988:43

v Collinge, William. Subtle Energy. New York, MY: Warner Books, 1998: 40

vi Hauser, Marc D. Wild Minds: What Animal Really Think. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company, 2000: 132

vii Gould, James L and Carol Grant. The Animal Mind. New York, NY: Scientific American Library, 1999: 1

viii Dodson, Fitzhugh Dr. How to Discipline With Love. New York, NY: Rawson Associates Publishers, Inc., 1977:14

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