Avian Expert Articles

Uncover The Pitfalls Of Problem Behaviors in Pet Birds

African grey parrot, grey, African grey toyLiving Wild in Your Living Room

Parrots are wonderful if you have a low tolerance for boredom like I do. Despite living and working with them for over three decades, I still find their complexities stimulating and the study of their behaviors both fascinating and absorbing. However, their complexities are also daunting, and the study of their behaviors is fraught with frustration and a lack of real knowledge. Such a contradiction!

Domestic bred, hand-raised baby parrots appeared in the pet trade a mere 25 years ago, so there is still much to be learned about how humans can raise psittacines properly. For those of us who specialize in companion parrot behavior, most of our information is anecdotal and experience-based instead of scientific, and despite our constant learning, there is still woefully insufficient information.

Confusing Literature on Parrot Behavior

Every species of parrot is different from every other species, and within each species, every parrot is an individual. Experiences vary tremendously with different species and different birds, and as a result, much of the parrot behavior literature is contradictory. This diversity can be tremendously frustrating to the new psittacine caretaker. Caring owners need to assimilate everything they read, and use their common sense. Sally Blanchard commented years ago that any behavioral advice needed to be evaluated in terms of its potential to either increase, or possibly damage, the trust between parrot and person. Under no circumstance should potentially trust-damaging techniques be used with parrots.

I have been living and working with parrots for over thirty years, and the more I learn, the more I realize how complex parrot behavior is and how much we do not yet know. As a result, I am less comfortable answering what some consider a “simple” question. For example, ten years ago, I would not hesitate to give quick advice on how to stop a parrot from biting. Nowadays, I believe a problem behavior like biting is a symptom of a more important underlying problem in the relationship between parrot and person. Consequently, I am more concerned with why the biting is happening, and I need more information about circumstances before giving advice about adjusting the behavior.

Parrot Owner Issues

From my experience as a parrot behavior consultant, it is the owner — not the bird — that is the source of most problems with parrots in captivity. People problems manifest in a variety of ways, but especially in terms of unrealistic expectations, a lack of control and a lack of knowledge and understanding.

Unrealistic Expectations About Parrot Ownership

Unfortunately, many people have no information about parrot ownership prior to purchase and consequently have no realistic conception of what a parrot is… and is not.

The most familiar companion animal is the dog, and unfortunately many people assume that all animals perceive humans the way dogs appear to: as god-like beings who are the Center Of The Universe. This view agrees with much of humanity’s perspective, yet as far as I can tell, this is a belief that only humans and dogs share. Like cats, parrots certainly do not see humans as the Center Of The Universe, nor do they perceive themselves as being a “pet” or being “owned” by anyone. After all, even if born in captivity, parrots are not domesticated animals. Instead, they are genetically identical to their wild counterparts and they have no understanding as to what people expect of them as companion animals. To many people, this comes as quite a shock.

To some people, parrots can seem very dog-like at times with the level of companionship they can provide, and at times they can seem almost human. Unfortunately, these attributes can often create problems for them. Despite how they might act at times, a parrot is NOT a little feathered person, a dog with feathers or a surrogate child. Instead, psittacines are extremely demanding, raucously loud, highly social and intelligent animals with an aptitude for creating gigantic messes and total destruction. As a consequence, they do not make good companions for most people.

Natural Parrot Behaviors vs. Problem Behaviors

Natural Parrot BehaviorHuman’s Perception of Problem Behavior
Chewing branches and leavesChewing furniture, windowsills, priceless antiques, and stock certificates
Chewing toysChewing computer components and electrical cords
Normal vocalizations (screaming)Excessive screaming (e.g. for hours at a time)
Biting to drive away a predatorBiting to get owner to go away
Dropping and throwing food to reseed the rain forest for the futureLobbing beets & blueberries onto white carpeting and gluing valuable books shut with pomegranate juice
Everything belongs to the parrotEverything belongs to the humans
ScreamingScreaming
Getting into troubleGetting into trouble

Natural Parrot Behaviors May = “Problem” Behaviors

Behaviors that are natural for parrots in the wild often get them into trouble when trying to succeed in the human habitat. Arrogant as humans are, when we dislike a behavior we often assume there is something wrong with the behavior, when in reality it might be totally normal. For example, chewing is a normal psittacine occupation. The owner is the one who perceives a parrot’s chewing as negative, the bird doesn’t. Whether people like it or not, an uncaged and unsupervised parrot is likely to cause a lot of damage to its environment. This is not the bird’s problem, nor is it the bird’s fault. Indeed, it is the fault of the human who was irresponsible and did not provide adequate supervision.

Another frequent annoyance with companion parrots is their propensity towards creating huge messes. Food flinging and food dropping are also normal psittacine behaviors, and they cannot be trained to behave in any other way. Colleague Chris Davis tells a wonderful fable about the Lord creating the rain forest with lots of luscious foods growing high in the jungle canopy. When the little ground dwelling animals complained about being unable to reach these wonderful things, the Lord created the parrot to take one bite from a piece of fruit and fling the rest to the jungle floor. As Chris puts it, when a parrot lobs a chunk of fruit across the room, it is only doing the Lord’s work. Whimsical tales notwithstanding, a parrot is messy and cannot be otherwise. This is not a problem for the parrot, but it can certainly be a problem for the people.

Excessive screaming is a common complaint from parrot people, and I have been amazed at the number of times that I discover that – despite the owner’s opinion – that a parrot is not making excessive noise at all. Parrots are often equipped with harsh, loud voices, and they cannot be taught to be quiet. Most parrot species will not succeed in apartments or pet controlled housing, and it is completely unfair to bring them into such situations. When publications discuss “quiet” species, that does not mean these birds are quiet – just quieter than those that are REALLY LOUD. Remember the saying: “If you want a quiet pet, get a reptile.”

People Problems = Parrot Problems

It is an unfortunate fact that people may be attracted to parrots for reasons other than simply wanting the extraordinary company of a psittacine. Parrots are in vogue now, which is a terrible thing to have happen to any animal. Some people will want one because they think having a parrot is “cool” and that by extension, having a parrot will make them “cool,” also. In reality, people who wish to be “cool” need to seek other avenues for improving their self-image. Companion animals cannot do that.

Another common situation with psittacines is a person who enjoys, either consciously or otherwise, his or her pet bird liking no one but them. When someone is insecure, a parrot’s fierce devotion can be a wonderful thing — for the person, though not the bird. Most parrot species are flock animals, and interacting with only one person is not psychologically healthy for them. Many people, however, make little or no effort to change this situation until further problem behaviors develop. For instance, people may contact me because their parrots have started feather destructive behaviors such as plucking. As I begin to collect information, I find the birds have been viciously biting other family members for months or years, but the owners did not see that as a problem! It is only when they learn that feather destruction is often a manifestation of an over-dependent, one-person bird, that they see any value in trying to improve the relationship between their parrot and other family members.

Preventing Parrot Behavior Problems Through Knowledge

Prevention is always the key. It is much easier to keep problems from starting than it is to fix them later. There are good parrot behavior books on the market, but people must understand that no amount of reading can adequately prepare them for the wonders — and aggravations — of living with a companion parrot. Reading every parenting book ever written cannot prepare someone for what it is like to have children, either. Books can only portray just so much. From my experience, the first step to preventing problems with parrots is to understand that, as wild animals born in captivity, parrots cannot easily adapt themselves to become human companions. It is up to the human to do the adapting.

Preventing Parrot Behavior Problems Through Training

It is also necessary to realize that a parrot will not know how to be good companions unless we teach them, and the easiest technique for doing that is through training. Having used it successfully for many years, I firmly believe in the effectiveness of Sally Blanchard’s nurturing guidance training, in which a parrot is taught to step on and off the human hand on the commands of Up and Down. By establishing these commands in a positive, unaggressive manner, people are placing themselves in a position of control, and the birds have a better idea as to their position in the human household. Parrots will run amok in the human environment, if allowed, doing whatever they please. By setting clear and consistent rules about acceptable behavior, parrots gain an understanding of our expectations. My blue-and-gold macaw is allowed to join us at the dinner table, but she has her own plate and is not allowed to take food from other dishes. She will invariably test these parameters if there is company, but everyone is instructed on consistency. This way she understands that the rules remain the same, with no exceptions.

Basic Training For Parrots

  • Teach parrots to step on the hand with the Step-up command
  • Teach parrots to step off of the hand with the Down command
  • Teach parrots what “No” means, and that they are to stop what they are doing whenever that word is used.
  • Teach parrots what “Good!” means.
  • Teach parrots to amuse themselves through play, whether humans are home or not.
  • Teach parrots to amuse themselves in their cages, whether humans are home or not.
  • Teach parrots that they do not need to be physically attached to their owners for hours at a time.

Preventing Parrot Behavior Problems Through Improved Communication

Parrots are eloquent communicators, expressing breathtaking subtleties of meaning and mood to all around them. Unfortunately, since people rarely notice much less understand psittacine body language, this information is not available to them. For successful communication with a parrot, the human must learn to be keenly attuned to psittacine body language. Failure to do this can often times result in tragedy, with escalations of developing behavior problems. A woman with a 3-year-old male African grey parrot complained that her parrot bites her “for no reason” when she tries to pet him. When asked if his feathers are tight to his body, with neck elongated and eyes round, she said yes. When queried if he was pushing her hand away with his beak, the response was again affirmative. In other words, this little grey was politely telling his person in every way that he could, that he did not want to be petted, and the human understood none of it. When he finally gave up and bit her, she immediately backed off. This story is important for two reasons. First, she taught him that biting was the only way he could communicate his wishes in a manner that got her to stop. Second, she didn’t understand that the bird has the right to not want to be petted. Parrots have their own opinions about things, just as we do, and the only animal I know that always wants to be petted is a dog.

What we call aggression in parrots is often a mask for fear, and owners of “aggressive” birds need to evaluate the situation in terms of that. It behooves us to remember that parrots are prey animals, and no matter how large and scary the birds may appear, we human predators are substantially larger and often more frightening to a parrot. Someone on the internet commented last year that her parrot was terribly aggressive and kept biting their small child. As it turned out, the baby was only bitten when he poked his fingers in the bird’s cage, which is purely a defensive reaction by the bird. The owner was quite surprised when this was mentioned to her. Thinking the parrot understood instinctively that babies don’t know any better, it hadn’t occurred to her that her child was terrorizing the bird and it was only defending itself.

We humans also teach our parrots to scream excessively by missing important signals. Decades ago, Joseph Forshaw identified certain parrot sounds as being “contact calls.” Designed to make certain a parrot has not become separated from its flock, the bird is looking for a response to make sure it isn’t alone. Companion parrots also use contact calls, and if the calls are not answered, the noise level will escalate until there is a response. This is what happens when I think I hear my husband in the house. I say, “David?” If there is no response, I say, “DAVID?” If still no answer, I yell, DAAAVIIIID!” and my husband says WHAAAT?!” This response teaches me that he only answers if I am rude, and the same thing happens with parrots. The trick to preventing excessive screaming is to figure out a specific parrot’s contact call, and always answer it. It is also a good habit to respond to any sounds a parrot makes that the person likes. For instance, if a parrot whistles or talks, answer it. In contrast, if it screams excessively, give it only silence. As intelligent and social creatures, parrots learn quickly to use the method that gets them the attention they crave, not the one that gets them ignored.

It also behooves people to carefully research the average normal noise level of a species prior to purchase, since experience dictates that people do more than just believe what aviculturists and/or pet store personnel say. After all, agendas frequently enter the picture when income is to be made. A woman told me she read a book about umbrella cockatoos, and the book discussed how loud cockatoos can be. However, when she asked a pet storeowner about this, he said the book was incorrect. In that situation, common sense dictates that the store owner had more to gain by lying than the book’s author did.

Creating Parrot Behavior Problems Through Inadvertent Reinforcement

A common problem is that people inadvertently reward behaviors they do not want in their companion parrots. Frequently accomplished through “drama rewards,” parrot people often respond to a negative behavior with great excitement, such as “OW! YOU BIT ME!!!” or “HOW DARE YOU DESTROY MY ROLEX™!!” or the all-time favorite of, “SHUT UUUUUUPPPPPP!! Since parrots really enjoy drama, these kinds of responses actually reinforce the behavior, rather than discouraging it. From my experience, parrots that scream excessively have been rewarded for it, somehow, and unless those inadvertent rewards are discontinued, the behavior will not change.

The same process is at work with many cases of “feather plucking” parrots. Parrots may start feather destructive behaviors for a spectrum of different reasons, many of which are physical. However, it is guaranteed the behavior will continue indefinitely if owners reward their birds with attention whenever they fiddle with their feathers. Instead, caretakers of feather destructive parrots should first invest in a full medical work-up with an experienced avian veterinarian, to rule out the plethora of medical and management reasons for this behavior. Only when these are discounted, can one somewhat safely assume a behavioral origin to the problem. If this appears to be the case, it behooves the caretaker to contact an experienced parrot behavior consultant to try to identify what is triggering the behavior. Often if parrots damage feathers for prolonged periods, the behavior becomes habituated. As a result, one should contact a professional right away, before a habit is formed.

The greatest dangers and pitfalls with psittacine problem behaviors have to do with a lack of good information about companion parrots and an understanding of their complexities. By constantly reading, talking with other educated psittacine companions, and by watching and learning from one’s own parrots, can caretakers prevent most problem behaviors.

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