Why Does My Parrot . . . ?by Rosemary Low
Parrots are sensitive creatures whose intelligence is often grossly underrated and, as a result, frequently exhibit behavior that is misunderstood by their owners. This reference guide to owning a parrot answers questions about problems and tensions between these feathered creatures and their owners. The basic elements of parrot psychology are explained, as are environmental factors that can cause biting, screaming, and feather plucking. Case studies of specific relationships are used to illustrate both good and bad examples of the pet/owner relationship.
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Why Does My Parrot ...?
By Rosemary Low
Souvenir PressCopyright © 2009 Rosemary Low
All rights reserved.
WHAT AFFECTS BEHAVIOUR
Many parrot owners are unaware of the various factors which play a part in the behaviour of their pet. Parrots — unlike finches or Canaries, for example — are emotionally quite complex creatures. They also have excellent memories. Both these facts mean that their behaviour can be profoundly influenced by past experiences. Most parrots are flock animals — but in recent years many have been hand-reared for the pet market, denying them the knowledge of their own species from an early age. Emotionally, this can scar them for life, especially if they have been weaned too early. Health and diet are other factors which can influence behaviour. And, as in humans, characteristics of the individual are involved in how they behave. The emotional environment also influences this. Let us now look at these aspects in some detail.
PERSONALITY AND BEHAVIOUR OF THE OWNER
This has an enormous impact on the behaviour of the parrot. It must be said that there are people who should never be allowed near a parrot, let alone own one. Their general demeanour may be loud and threatening. Birds prefer people who are quiet and gentle in movement and manner. Such people tend to be naturally more sympathetic towards living creatures.
Some people have no interest in wildlife or pets, yet they are parrot owners. They might acquire a parrot for the wrong reason. This may be because it is perceived as fashionable, or because walking about with a macaw on the shoulder attracts attention. If a natural empathy with birds does not exist, a parrot can sense that. The larger parrots are extraordinarily sensitive creatures. Unlike many dogs, parrots do not automatically adore their owner. In fact, they may take a strong dislike to someone who has no affinity with birds. The same could occur with someone who is totally devoted to parrots but has the misfortune to remind their parrot of another human being, one who has not dealt with it in a sympathetic manner. It could take a very long time to eradicate these memories — or perhaps they will persist for ever. Some aspects of human behaviour — quick movements and loud voices, for example — can be modified to make the person more acceptable. This also applies to children.
Surprisingly enough, there are people who are afraid of their parrots. Yes, those big beaks can inflict serious injury. But intelligent, sympathetic owners are almost never bitten once a rapport has been established between bird and owner. Parrots can sense or observe fear. They observe it in the hesitant movements of someone offering a hand to step on, for example. While this will usually be ignored by a young handreared parrot, it will be acted upon by a parrot with more experience of people.
Just as a parrot can observe when a person is nervous or in a bad mood, the owner should also learn to read his or her parrot's state of mind. Human beings are able to describe their emotions to each other in a sophisticated and complex language. Birds, of course, cannot do this — but if we study a particular species we can understand basic emotions and vocalisations. If we live closely with a pet bird we begin to understand much more about this individual. We should also accept that birds try to communicate with us but unfortunately most people are not receptive.
There are times when a parrot wants to be left alone. The more aggressive species may bite if an attempt is made to handle them then. Grey Parrots are among the least aggressive species. When interacting with their own kind, aggressive behaviour is rare. If, for example, a Grey does not welcome human attention at a particular time, it would be more likely to react by firmly clasping its beak around a finger. Not by biting. But it will bite after it has issued this warning which has been ignored. It will also bite in fear.
How you react to your parrot in response to a certain behaviour from it will, of course, also affect its behaviour. If, for example, when your parrot screams you scream back — in annoyance — the parrot perceives this as a stimulating response and will scream all the more. If when it screams you ignore it totally — not even a glance in its direction — you have done nothing to reinforce its screaming habit. Screaming has not gained your attention, so ultimately, the habit may subside. This assumes that the parrot is screaming to gain your attention; this is the usual cause. However, if it is screaming for some other reason, ignoring it will not be effective.
Be very aware of the fact that your own state of mind can profoundly influence your parrot's behaviour. This is especially true if you become annoyed with him. This will not earn your parrot's respect. Indeed, if he is already playing you up, becoming annoyed will only make matters worse.
One owner recorded: 'Think about the last time you came home upset. Was your Grey Parrot a little more difficult to deal with? Did it refuse to come out of its cage? Did a finger get nipped? Was more food than usual thrown out of the cage? Were there more screams that grated on your nerves? Stress is bad enough for us, but it's far more toxic to our Greys. That's because Greys mirror back our moods. If you're happy, your Grey will be happy; but, if you're angry or nervous, chances are that your Grey will react by being "difficult" (either by biting you or its feathers)' (Zadalis, 1996).
Ellen Zadalis suggested that we must focus on ourselves, identify when we begin to become stressed and start to undo the behaviour. We should do something to relax and to clear our minds. She does so by listening to Louis Armstrong singing 'What a wonderful world'.
As an example of how our birds can react if we become annoyed, the lories in my outdoor aviaries are shut into the house part at night. There are two pairs which sometimes are not too happy about going in. I have to adopt different tactics for each pair. If I became annoyed with the Rajahs for not entering the house, the male became more and more difficult, and occasionally even aggressive. If they are inside when I go to shut them up but move into the outdoor flight when they see or hear me coming, I would have problems if I entered the flight to persuade them into the house. I learned to deal with this problem by ignoring them and entering the house and carrying out some jobs there. They would then come in to see what I was doing and I could run around to the outside flight and shut the hatch. The secret was to avoid the confrontation that occurred if I went into their flight.
A young pair of Stella's Lorikeets reacted quite differently. They had previously behaved well, going inside as soon as I came to shut their hatch. Then they started to challenge me: they did not want to go inside and I had to resort to chasing them around, which was more stressful to me than to them. They are totally tame and fearless. On the third night of this I got the catching net and caught up the male to put him inside. He did not like that. Most parrots hate nets. On subsequent evenings I would take the net with me. I only had to show it to them and they would go straight inside. This ruse would not have been successful with the male Rajah. The sight of the net would have made him aggressive.
I mention these incidents to show that there are ways to avoid confrontations. If you feel yourself getting annoyed, walk away.
HEALTH AND DIET
Dietary deficiencies in parrots are common. They can affect behaviour. A parrot could be sick with, for example, a low-grade bacterial infection which is not immediately life-threatening. Or it could be terminally ill and show no outward sign of this until a few days before it died. In either case, its behaviour could alter because it was feeling unwell or in pain. And pain could also cause it to pluck itself.
No factor has a greater influence on a bird's health and, ultimately, on its lifespan, than diet. But the choice of food is by no means easy. Feed a seed-based diet to certain species which can exist on seed and one risks life-threatening deficiencies, especially of Vitamin A which causes, for example, catarrh (see Sneezing).
Grey Parrots are especially susceptible to calcium deficiency when fed a seed diet. (Corticosteroids are sometimes used to treat Greys; but note that they are known to induce hypocalcaemia). This results in fits (seizures) and, if left untreated, early death. So the alternative is to feed pellets which contain sufficient levels of calcium and basic nutrients. Manufacturers claim that these are a complete food. Complete for which species? There are more than 200 parrot species in captivity. In the wild, no two species consume exactly the same range of foods. Obviously, there is no processed food that is equally suitable for so many species with such differing dietary needs.
Those who keep mutation parrots and parrakeets should also be aware of the fact that the metabolism of these birds is different to that of normally coloured parrots. Pelleted foods can have adverse effects on them. It seems that otherwise necessary levels of Vitamin D3, calcium and phosphorus in commercial diets are not well tolerated by certain mutations, such as fallow Cockatiels and dilute parrotlets.
Health has a much greater influence on behaviour than many parrot owners realise. For example, feather plucking is often the result of bacterial infections, pain and allergies.
METHOD OF HAND-REARING
The purchaser of a hand-reared parrot assumes that it will be easy to handle, tame and affectionate — because it is hand-reared. This does not automatically qualify a parrot to make a good pet. The way in which it was hand-reared and weaned can have a profound and long-term effect on its behaviour. Even the method of feeding can be significant. The most caring hand-feeders, and those who feed comparatively small numbers, will use a spoon. This is the most natural method because it is nearest to the way in which a parent feeds its young. It is also the best method from the chick's point of view, as, when it has had enough, it ceases to feed. Syringe-feeding into the mouth comes second in this respect. Both are quite time-consuming, allowing the feeder to establish a relationship with the young parrot which helps it to relate to other humans. Syringe-feeding into the crop is much quicker, so a chick can be handled for a minimum period, as is the case where large numbers are being hand-reared. However, this does not preclude a good relationship between parrot and humans, at this early age, if the feeder is prepared to devote a little extra time to each young parrot. There is a fourth method of giving food to chicks — gavage feeding. A gavage is a metal tube designed to administer medication. A hard object must be very uncomfortable when it is pushed down the throat into the crop. In my opinion, it should never be used for hand-feeding. One purchaser of a gavage-fed young parrot described it as being scared to death of anyone approaching with anything in their hands. It hated meal times. After six months it became more confident, accepting that its new owner was not going to open its beak and force a metal tube down it.
Another factor that can influence the behaviour of hand-reared parrots is whether there is a middle man between breeder and ultimate purchaser. The middle man is usually a pet store owner. Some personnel have no notion of the correct way to feed and interact with parrots at weaning stage. Perhaps, too, there may not be sufficient staff to spend enough time with them. Young parrots might be malnourished or neglected. At that important stage of their lives, this could cause severe behavioural problems. If a hand-reared parrot remained in a store for some weeks after weaning and was not handled on a regular basis, it might become very difficult to hold. Certain species would lose their tameness. The purchaser of a young parrot from a pet store should always ask to handle it. It would be unreasonable to refuse this request, thus an answer in the negative should arouse grave suspicion.
The behaviour of a young parrot, parrakeet or Cockatiel which has been hand-reared, is very different to that of an adult. There is a strange assumption on the part of many people who see a cuddly young cockatoo or an appealing baby Amazon, that this is how it will be for the rest of its life. In the world of harsh truths it would be appropriate to display a five-year-old of the same species next to the cute baby — and ask: 'Can you cope with the mature counterpart?'
Post-weaning parrots of the species popularly kept as pets are clinging, affectionate, adoring, quiet and compliant. This stage does not last long. Most soon become challenging, noisy and even nippy and unco-operative. This is why it is so important to start training at an early age.
Just as in humans, old age can, of course, also affect behaviour. Old birds are less active; they may become a little bad tempered, especially when handled. Nearly all aged parrots have arthritis in their feet; they should be handled with care. The result is that their grip on the perch is poor and they will fall off the perch at night. Perches should therefore be placed low down in the cage. A vertical ladder-like arrangement of perches might help to prevent falls at night. Arthritis might even affect their wings, making them unable to fly upwards. Very old parrots usually suffer from cataracts. When their sight is impaired, special care will need to be taken when they are free outside the cage.
The position of a parrot's cage in the home could be crucial to his health and happiness. He needs to feel secure. This can usually be achieved by placing the cage in a corner or in an alcove. The worst position is where the cage can be approached from every side. The height of the cage is also important. The parrot should be at or just below your eye level. If he is above this height, his elevated position will, it appears to him, give him an elevated status. In nature, the dominant birds probably take the highest perches. If he is elevated, he is likely to be much more difficult to control. Likewise, never place a cage where the bird's eye level is below that of your waist. Many perching birds feel insecure when kept permanently at a low level. In nature this would make them most vulnerable to predators. Such a position can result in a lack of self-confidence. If this is the case a parrot would be quiet and unlikely to learn to mimic (see also Dominance).
Locations to avoid are those near or facing a television set or computer screen. The flickering lights are very disturbing. Also, the equipment probably emits frequencies which will diminish the bird's sense of well-being. This could affect his behaviour on a permanent basis, making him sluggish or sleepy. It is important that a parrot has enough sleep, especially when young.
Many parrot owners fail to understand that a small cage can have a negative effect on a large parrot's behaviour. Nervous parrots and aggressive cockatoos, or parrots which were wild caught, show a marked decrease in aggression or generally unfriendly behaviour when placed in a small (or large) flight, after being confined to a cage. The large macaws need a lot of headroom and will feel a sense of increased well-being when placed in a cage which has at least 60 cm (two feet) of headroom.
THE INFLUENCE OF COLOUR
An aspect that is seldom considered is that colour can be a negative influence. This applies to the colour of the walls in the area of a parrot's cage and to the colours worn by the people in the vicinity. In nature, blocks of bright colours are very rare; the muted browns of trees, a hundred shades of green, including bright tones which are broken up by light and shade, small points of red and orange which are blossoms, are the tones which parrots see. The brightest colours are those of their own plumage. Walls in stark white and, much worse, solid bright colours, create a harsh, unnatural environment. This would be stressful, at least initially, to wild-caught parrots or those from aviaries.
The very worst colour that a person can wear around birds is bright red. When this is moving (a walking person), a bird can panic with fatal consequences. One day I received a telephone call from a friend who kept a pair of Himalayan Monals, gorgeous pheasants with iridescent plumage. He was very upset as an unfortunate tragedy had just occurred. His partner had gone out to shut the monals in for the night and the male had panicked, hit the aviary wall and broken his neck. Why? This was a nightly ritual. But on that occasion his partner was wearing a bright red jacket.
In nature red is the colour of threat. The males of one species of chameleon which are normally brown, turn brilliant orange-red when they are about to fight another male. I never wear red near birds. Well, almost never. I once had a bright red cardigan which was always covered by a jacket when I went to my aviaries. One day the weather suddenly turned warm and I removed my jacket, forgetting about the red cardigan. When I put my hand into the flight of a pair of Rajah Lories to remove their nectar pot, the male bit me very hard. It was a deep bite — like a razor slash. (Lories have very sharp beaks.) Instantly I realised why. Not only was I wearing red but I was flaunting it in front of a parrot which is mainly black. Its wings are lifted during aggressive encounters to reveal bright red underwings. Solid red is the most threatening sight for this particular species — and instils fear into many others.
Excerpted from Why Does My Parrot ...? by Rosemary Low. Copyright © 2009 Rosemary Low. Excerpted by permission of Souvenir Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Rosemary Low is the author of The Parrot Companion and has answered readers' queries in Cage & Aviary Birds and PsittaScene (the magazine of the World Parrot Trust) for more than 25 years.
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