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To Tame Your Wild Or Aggressive Parrot
Dealing With Unwanted Behaviors In Your Pet Parrot
We will never look or feel this good if you don't feed us right as well.
Read about that here
Ron Hines DVM PhD
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Parrot clients come to avian veterinarians with more behavioral health issues than physical health issues. Even when physical problems are discovered, behavioral problems often underlie them. There is a simple reason for that – the pre-programmed, psychological needs of parrots clash at several levels with the aspirations and desires of many parrot owners.
It is easy to forget that parrots are wild spirits of the tropical savannahs, not domesticated companions like dogs and cats that fit comfortably into the average human family. Dogs have evolved to live with humans over the last 27,000 years (ref) parrots since perhaps, the 1930s (ref). The parrot’s ability to mimic human speech is, at the same time, its most endearing and its most deceptive trait. It leads us to make the false assumption that a creature that can speak like us will be content and happy with the same things that make us content and happy. Its not just parrot owners that fall into that deception; avian veterinarians and parrot behavioralists are just as likely to misconstrue what truly motivates and governs parrot behavior. If you want to get past the problems that brought you to this webpage, you will need to understand that.
Today, most of the "problem” parrots I see are not problem birds at all - they are the parrots that are the most loving, the most bonded to their human owner, the most integrated into their surrogate human family.
Many of my clients thought that a parrot would be less demanding than a dog or cat - no need to walk and groom them, no need to change their smelly litter boxes or pick hair strands out of your food. Or, my client bought the parrot as a companion for their child (whose short attention and interest span rivals that of the parrot). Some purchased the bird on impulse after a slick sales pitch by a pet shop employee or bird breeder who minimized how demanding larger parrots can be. In fact, parrots require considerably more time and attention than dogs and cats.
Still other parrot owners were mesmerized by the thought of human speech emanating from a beautiful, feathered creature. One that brings a little bit of the alluring jungle into one's personal life. I suppose I was one of those, because a yellow-headed parrot shared my boarding house room every day of my veterinary school education.
It really doesn’t matter how the parrot came into your life. It’s yours now. It depends on you to do what is best for it and you can’t do that unless you understand what makes it tick.
Aggression, self-mutilation and screaming are just the tip of a larger iceberg. The problem underlying all those behaviors is that domestically bred parrots are not (yet) domestic animals. I deal with injured wildlife, zoo and performing animals; so I am not at all surprised at what can happen when you take a highly social wild creature, designed by God to fly free with its own kind in tropical forests, and confine it in your home. Normal domesticated animals are trapped in their youth with respect to man. Their genes have been manipulated by us to make them fit comfortably into our human family. This is not the case with most large parrots – their genetics are still wild and they have social demands that can be quite hard (but not impossible) for you to satisfy.
I Really Love This Bird; But How Much Is My Parrot Really Like Me ? Are Parrots Little Feathered Children Like Some Authorities Suggest ? What’s Really Going On In My Parrot’s Head ?
Talking, gregariousness and a tactile, snuggly behavior with grasping hands are all deceptive traits - if you assume that your parrot has them for the same reasons you do.
Do you notice the smile on the hyacinth macaw and the porpoise? Are they smiling because they are happy or because they were created with facial features we associate with happiness? People have an innate tendency to assume that creatures around them that they love are motivated and respond to the same things they do. This tendency tends to increase when creatures and things don’t behave as we would like them to. That tendency is called anthropomorphism. We all share it. The most detailed and informative article on anthropomorphism I know of is one by Adam Waytz. You can read it here. Knowing , at some inner level, that your pet thinks differently than you doesn’t mean you will love it less – I talk to all my pets. (You can read about some of the psychological needs that parrots fulfill in their owners here.) But not acknowledging it at some level, means that you can not deal realistically with your pet's problems when they occur.
My dog-owning clients often tell me about coming home only to see the house in a mess and their dog with that “guilty look”. Is the dog really fearful because he feels guilty about what he did ? Read about that here.
What Is My Parrot’s Sense Of Self, Contemplation, Problem Solving And Intelligence ?
Parrot brains are structured quite differently from human brains. They are organized quite differently. We make our decisions using our prefrontal cortex. Birds do not have a well-developed prefrontal cortex for thought. They get around this by processing data needed to make their decision a bit farther back, in an area called the NCL. Although bird brains are quite dissimilar to ours, they have developed in a way that gives birds limited abilities to deal with the problems they are likely to encounter in life. You can read all about that here.
Parrots Are Impulsive
Parrots are not very good at judging cause and effect or controlling their emotions. They also have very short attention spans. That is what makes training them based on reward so difficult. Most recent studies in parrots use African Grey Parrots. They appear, on the surface, to be the most intelligent, observant and emotionally sensitive of all parrots. But they have difficulty in conceptualizing the concept of reward and payoff. You can read about one experiment conducted to judge those abilities here.
Parrots Are, By Nature, Uncooperative
Grey Parrots did poorly in tests that require cooperative problem solving because they are too impulsive and lack the ability to project what the consequences of their actions will be. You can read a study that confirms that here.
Parrots Learn Primarily From Trial And Error Rather Than By Observation And Instruction
Kea parrots are used for observation of the mental abilities of wild parrots because Keas are so fearless and approachable in the parks of New Zealand where they live. They do not have much ability to understand cause and effect or transfer past experiences to current problems. You can read about an experiment that tested those traits in keas here.
Parrot Behavior Is Under Tight Control Of Their Sex Hormones And Initial Imprinting
How your parrot behaves socially is largely due to two things, who raised it from birth and what its hormones are telling it at the moment.
like all animals, decide who their relatives are (
cospecifics) depending on who cares for them as infants
- not what they look like. That time period is rather short and the decisions
formed during that period are very deep-based and persistent; be it a
child, a elephant or a parrot. (ref)
as important are the hormones secreted by your parrot’s ovary, testes,
and adrenal glands (cortisol)
1, ref 2)
You are much more likely to succeed changing behaviors of parrots when they are due to things like improper diet, stressful environment and boredom than you are to change the effects of hormones and imprinting. Your are much more likely to train behaviors that fit comfortably into a parrots natural repertoire of hormone and imprinting-bonding “file cabinet” than to attempt to make the bird behave in a way contrary to them.
Many abnormal behaviors, expressed in a home setting, are normal parrot behaviors in the wild. Said in another way, you will not be able to easily fit a square peg into a round hole and if you do succeed in pounding it in, you will probably cause an equal amount of damage elsewhere.
I have not read studies that tracked seasonal hormone levels in parrots. But you can read about the ways they rise and ebb in finches and how they influence their behavior here and here . When you are attempting to change natural parrot behaviors, you are often battling very deep-seated, ingrained behaviors that were not “learned” in the way “bad” behaviors are sometimes the result of learning and experience in humans. So approaching the problems from a human behavioral perspective, using human behavior modification techniques is likely to give disappointing results.
What About Alex The Parrot ?
The story about Alex and Irene Pepperberg (ref) is not one I can explain based on what I know about parrots. I have never owned an African grey parrot – only Amazons, macaws and conures. Alex was extraordinarily talented, within a narrow group of abilities. Contentment and self-control were obviously not among them, since Alex was a chronic feather plucker (ref). Comparing his intellect to that of a 5-year-old child is unfortunate. He did not recognize himself in a mirror – an ability that develops in children at about 20 months of age. (ref) No one has been able to obtain the results again that were obtained with Alex.(ref) (Parrots have sensory capabilities very different from yours and mine. That enhanced ability to make correct choices can be easily misinterpreted as human-like intelligence (ref). ).
There are two problems with these studies. The first, and more minor one, is that African grey parrots appear to be at the top of the parrot intelligence pyramid. Parrots with lesser intellectual abilities than Alex suffer the same disorders that Alex did.
A bigger problem is that these studies are all designed to show how parrots and humans are similar – not how they are different. We people are a self-centered species, we're always excited when we find similarities between ourselves and some “lower” animal. When differences are found, they are expressed as disappointments or perplexities. A research paper entitled “ How African Grey Parrots And Humans Differ” is unlikely to get funded or lead to a tenure-track faculty position.
Wouldn’t It be Inhumane And Cruel If I Didn’t Treat My Parrot Like My Child - With The Same Techniques Suggested For Children ?
No, you would be inhumane if you did. It would not be a loving thing to do. You would expect this harmless creature of the forest to behave in a way that God did not equip it to behave. You would also insure failure and considerable self-directed guilt.
Are Some Parrots Domineering and Bossy ? Do They Establish Peck Orders And Might You Be Lower On The Totem Pole Than They Are ?
Anyone who has observed flocks of wild parrots notice that they squabble. Like any flock animal they establish a dynamic hierarchy through nipping, displays, threatening gestures and vocalizations. Dr. Pepperberg’s Model/Rival method of training relied on her observation that parrots treat their non-bonded cage mates as rivals. (ref) To contend that there are “no alpha parrots in the wild” and that “contention between parrots is uncommon” denies reality. Parrots are also more likely to behave aggressively to other human family ("flock") members than to complete strangers. (ref)
Territorialness, domineering behavior and aggression are heavily hormonal behaviors: so they can change with the season in parrots whose hormonal activity is entrained (synchronized with) to the season. When the bird's gonads are involuted (small and inactive), the behaviors usually decrease. When the birds enter courtship and reproduction time, these behaviors often increase. In captivity, without natural lighting cues, these behaviors often occur sporadically or all year long. (Some species of parrots express these seasonal behaviors more than others.)
I have, on occasion, miss-paired parrots when I broke up my winter flocks for breeding. I can assure you that feathers fly and birds have the potential for severe injury when that mistake is made. What prevents it in the wild is that more submissive parrots have the ability to back off and retreat from a fight – something all animals (other than humans) do when given the opportunity. (Avian vets commonly treat parrots whose toes have been nipped off when they landed on another parrot’s cage.)
Will My Parrot Change Its Behavior If It Understands That I Disapprove Of The Way It’s Acting ? Will Punishing It Or Withholding My Affection And Attention Help ?
Probably not. The best way to change a behavior in a parrot is to offer it another behavior that it prefers. I am not going to offer a list of all the things you can offer your parrot to keep it occupied. You can find that on the Internet. But the most important thing you can give most “misbehaving” parrots is more, not less, of your attention. Parrots crave the close company of their flock mates - 24 hours a day.
Why Do Parrots Bite Other Members Of My Family ?
Parrots bite for one of two reasons. They are either fearful and frightened or they are brave, possessive and aggressive.
Fear-biting parrots rear back on their perch and growl at an approaching person. They stand high on their perch with their eyes dilated and their feathers slick. In their terror to escape they may actually fall off of their perch or hang upside down. Aggressive biters, on the other hand, bite silently or with a cackling laugh while their eyes dilate and constrict. They raise their feathers and fan their tails and walk in a deliberate, strutting manner.
Fear-biting parrots are no longer common in the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s tremendous numbers of wild caught, mature birds were exported from Central and South America, Africa and Asia. This was a sordid, sad period for these wild creatures. The people involved in this organized trafficking were a heartless group, motivated solely by money. It resulted in large numbers of wild, fearful parrots being sold as “pets” throughout the developed World. Mercifully, The Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 ended that practice (at least in the USA).
Those wild parrots had never been close to humans before and were terrified. When handled, these birds bit to protect themselves. Today I rarely encounter them. But aviary-bred birds that have not had enough human companionship early in life can behave similarly. So can breeder discards – adult birds that did not lay satisfactorily and were unscrupulously disposed of through the pet trade.
Brave and aggressive parrots are much more common today. My Amazon parrots, conures and macaws usually bonded to one member of the family whom they groomed and preened. They acted aggressively toward other family members whom they perceived as intruders. I have never discovered how these parrots decided on who is friend and who is foe. But I know it occurred almost instantaneously and that the decision was rarely, if ever, revoked. I took in foster children for many years. Within the first few minutes of encountering my parrots, I knew if a bird would preen the child’s hair , or attack it. But I could not find a commonality as to which child it would accept and which it would not. The sex of the parrot and the sex of the child appeared irrelevant, as did the child’s height, the color of its clothes and demeanor. The cues, whatever they were, remain inscrutable to me. (perhaps they saw something in the "invisible UV spectrum")
Not all fear-biting parrots are wild imported parrots or breeder discards. Smaller parrots are often bred and sold with little or no personal human contact during the critical period when they imprint on humans or determine that they are not a threat. Basically, the bird’s market value determines the amount of individual care it receives. So does the method that the bird is sold. Breeders of under-socialized birds usually (but not always) market them through jobbers, pet stores. They, like the owners of puppy mills, find it more convenient that you can not find your way back to them when problems arise. Retail outlets find all sorts of excuses for the bird’s behavior because they do not want to refund your money.
Raising parrots with love and affection is very labor intensive. One can only do it with a limited number of breeding pairs – generally too few to be profitable when dealing with common species of parrots. That leaves the breeder with two options, sell the babies when they are too young or give them less individual attention than they require. Neither option produces well-socialized birds.
Many fear-biting parrots are second or third hand birds - parrots that have moved from place to place resulting in broken bonds, insecurity and fear.
All fear-biting parrots become better pets when they realize that you will not hurt them. That can take a long time and it requires considerable patience on the part of the owner. However, these parrots rarely if ever become the loving companions that birds with early, positive human exposure do. But they need homes too and for some people, they make fine pets.
A few unfortunate parrots, like miss-imprinted monkeys, never become fully comfortable with either the company of animals or humans. (ref)
A second form of biter is the territorial and possessive parrot that is fearless of human beings. These birds usually have bonded to one member of the family. The parrot considers this person to be his or her mate and allows no one else in that person’s vicinity without attack. They also defend the territory surrounding their cage. The majority of aggressive behavior starts at the same time the bird becomes sexually mature (1-6 years depending on species). I have seen this problem more in New World parrots, the Amazons, macaws and conures, which mate for life and less frequently in cockatoos and Pacific Rim parrots which do not appear to me to form as profound a bond with their mates. Try not to take it personally - it is strictly a hormonal thing. A second group of birds insist on forming a peck order in the family similar to a peck order in a flock of parrots. Some of these parrots crown themselves “king” or the alpha member of the family. In other cases, only some of the human family members are regarded as of lower status than the bird. Because this action is so “hormonal” it is very difficult to modify.
Bird psychologists would have little to offer you if they did not suggest that something you did or did not do was the cause of your bird developing aggression. But in the vast majority of cases, the reasons actually lie deep within the bird’s psyche and genetic programming - at levels where trivial changes have no effect.
Does Abuse Cause Aggression ?
I work with a lot of species of animals and I have never known this to occur - if you define abuse as a misused relationship. Animals do not carry grudges – they live primarily in the here and now. Force, abuse and taunting causes panic, fear biting, a deterioration in health and eventual apathy to ones environment. But they do not cause aggression. We think that many of the negative effects of fear act through nerve/chemical pathways called the hypothalamic-pituitary axis or HPA . You can read one of the recent studies that examine the HPA pathways in birds here.
Abuse will cause fear-biting, but I have not known it to cause aggressive biting. Aggressiveness and confidence go hand in hand.
What Are Stereotypic Behaviors ?
Stereotypic behaviors or stereotypies are repetitive behaviors that animals perform in excess when kept in an unnatural environment. It is common in animals that normally travel or fly over large areas when they are confined to small areas that contain few activities to occupy their time. Many people believe that excessive screaming and over-preening in parrots and bobbing in cockatoos fit the definition of stereotypies. I accept that belief at well.
However, when it comes to excessive screaming or calling, there may be other factors involved. For one, parrots normally vocalize before they fly. Most house parrots have flight denied to them. They also vocalize just before their normal bed times – as they gather to roost. Many house parrots are denied their normal day-night cycles.
You can not give your parrot jungles to fly over, but you have complete control on what it is flying for - its food supply. By presenting your pet its food in complicated and novel ways that require thought, work and dexterity on its part, you will keep its brain circuits working in positive ways. By adding positive complexities to its life and habitat and by interacting with your parrot as much as you can, throughout the day, you will give stereotypic behaviors less of an opportunity to form.
The trinity of parrot complaints are aggression, screaming and plucking – pretty much in that order. And just like the other two, correcting the cause does not, necessarily correct the problem. Your parrot is quite content hearing itself scream. I have never seen a parrot scream when it was intent on other activities, so your best approach is to give it activities that keep it occupied during the time the problem occurs. Experiment with changes in lighting intensity, source and cycles, consider allowing your pet more freedom to fly or flutter, a larger flight cage, change the time of day and the presentation of food, and enrich its life in as many ways as possible. You will not solve the problems with techniques designed to punish or deprive the bird. You will not solve it by moving the bird to an out-of-the way corner or a separate room (even though it is unaware of it, it is screaming for something).
Loud Calling is a normal parrot behavior in the morning and evening. When it occurs more frequently or incessantly in a parrot that was not taught its proper call by its feathered parents, it can become an annoying scream. I believe that is often a perversion of the normal, very loud, contact calls parrots utter for their mates (or their bonded owner) and family group. You can read about parrot contact calls here.
Giving parrots safe food containing objects to gnaw on and slowly destroy is another excellent way to occupy your pet’s time.
Curing The Problem
Behaviors in parrots. once established, are not very plastic. Birds never
surrender them unless they are offered another preferable one to replace
If you suspect health issues, take the bird to an experienced avian veterinarian. Parrots, of a single species are quite uniform in weight. Never attempt any of my suggestions on a bird that is underweight (“gone light”), a parrots whose tail bobs up and down as it breaths, a parrot with any form of crustiness surrounding its nostrils, a parrot that breaths with its mouth open, a parrot with stress bars on its feathers or washed out colors, or a parrots that has insufficient pectoral muscle mass. Since birds are so “hormonal”, you may find your pet more receptive to change in one season of the year than another.
Parrots have a different relationship with every family member and each person in the family needs to eventually take part in the training. In the beginning, assign training the bird to a single assertive (confident) individual.
The Right Person - The Right Stuff
The nature of talent varies between humans, some of us are good at one thing, and some at another. That is why some people are more successful in modifying parrot behavior than others. Not everyone is blessed to be able to read a parrot’s behaviors correctly or recognize the subtle clues they give. When I farmed out wild bird foundlings to my volunteers to raise, I did not find that education or prior experience with wildlife necessarily result in increased success in raising these orphans. Often it was the opposite. What successful people often possess is calm and tranquil personalities, competency in repetitive tasks, and patience combined with empathy and love for animals. Are those personality traits that you possess?
Brenda Cramton examined some of the factors that seem to define a person who relates well to parrots. You can read her thoughts here.
Parrots scope you out to an extent you may not be aware of. The color of your cloth, the fluidity and speed of your movements, the eye contact you give them all affect the way a parrot will react to you. They are also quite slow in giving back or changing their initial impressions. It is always safer to let a strange or distrustful parrot come to you, rather than the other way around. I generally let all strange animals accept my disinterested presence for a while before I attempt to interact with them. If they make the first move, so much the better. Parrots tend to be highly conservative and distrustful of new objects and people. These things are best introduced into their lives gradually.
The Right Spot And The Right Cage
Many owners keep their parrots in cages that are too small. Parrots are active birds by nature and confinement to a small space can be sufficient stress in itself to cause psychological disturbances. Where your parrot resides needs to be more of a habitat than a cage, with multiple nooks, and perches of varying size and shape. Most perches are smaller in diameter than they should be. A parrots toes or toenails should never cover more than 50% of the primary perch’s diameter. An added benefit to large-diameter perches is that your parrot’s toenails will not have to be trimmed as often. If you place natural branches in your pet’s habitat, there will be plenty of smaller side shoots for the bird to play on should he wish to.
Parrots feel insecure when they are at or below eye level. So, for fearful parrots, try to position their cage so that their perch is about six inches above your eye level. The bars of the cage give fearful parrots a sense of security.
For aggressive birds, experiment with perches about four inches below your eye level.
The personality of parrots, and birds in general, are greatly affected by sunlight. There are three things about light are important: its intensity, the number of hours it is supplied and the wavelengths of the light source. Birds have daily rhythms and yearly rhythms and both rely on light to stay in synchrony. The parrots I care for that are housed in well-constructed outdoor aviaries tend to have less psychological problems than parrots housed indoors. I believe that socialization with other parrots and a richer environment account for a lot of that; but exposure to natural sunlight in its yearly rhythms is probably an important factor as well.
I became aware of the importance of sunlight when I cared for penguins. They also suffer from feather problems that you can read about here. Like parrots, penguin mood, molt and breeding is highly dependent on the nature of the light they receive. Owners of outdoor parrot aviaries often notice that their New World parrots molt, breed, congregate and disperse in tune to yearly changes in sunlight. (Mine did not drop feathers now and then as indoor parrots do). The World that your parrot sees is not the World that you see - it is considerably richer because their eyes sense light in the UV spectrum as well. You can read about that here and here. That is why a well-lit screen porch can be an excellent location for your parrot if that area still allows it to interact with the people it is attached to.
Window glass, in itself, blocks much of the UV rays of the sun. (ref) When natural sunlight is not an option, add full-spectrum light sources to your parrot’s environment. These are the same light sources used for reptiles, you can read more about them here. Aggression problems often occur when the hormones of parrots are surging – When I have been bitten it was usually by macaws defending their nests - sexual maturity is when many aggression problems first begin. Most parrots are considerably more accepting when their gonads are quiescent (involuted). The “free running” clocks of birds kept under normal house light can make these surges unpredictable and unnatural.
Lighting can be used to your advantage in different ways when you are training a parrot. During initial training, many parrots are calmer in dim lighting - the lighting of dusk when parrots are winding down for the night. In dim light, parrots may be calmer and less likely to attack. Put a dimmer switch on the lighting to your training room and see how light level affects your bird.
So dim light, bright light, light rhythms and light spectrum can all affect your bird's personality. The effect is unpredictable, but affect it, it will and it gives you an added tool in dealing with particular problems.
Treats And Rewards
Your parrot’s favorite food treats are your best training tool –
your secret weapon. Make them preservative-free fruits, not nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds or other junk
foods. Put some tidbits on the floor of your parrot’s cage to see
which it favors most. Then offer those specific treats only when the bird
approaches you to obtain them or behaves in a manor you favor. Be generous
in the offering but stingy in the amount. The slightest inclination to
do what you desire is reason enough to give the parrot a food reward
- training is a step-by-step process. Keep the tidbit portions small
so the bird stays interested.
My favorite bird treats are small bits of preservative-free, sun-dried fruit. Begin by placing the food on a shish kabob stick or straightened coat hanger. Slowly shorten the distance between the food and you until the bird accepts the treat directly from your hand. When your training session is over, put the treats back in the fridge and do not offer those items until your next session. I want your parrot to associate them with cooperation and not take them for granted. Unfortunately, this method has never helped me in decreasing the aggression of parrots.
Set Regularly Scheduled Training Times
Parrots are creatures of habit. They are most comfortable when events occur in a predictable manner at the same time every day. So set a routine with your parrot that does not differ from day to day. Many parrots are most alert in the early morning and in the late afternoon. Try setting your training sessions at those times. If they seem more receptive at a different hour, move to that time. Try training sessions of 15-30 minutes. Stop earlier if you parrots interest level drops and keep initial learning lessons quite brief for fearful birds.
A Hand Held Perch
Step up – step down behavior increases all around trust.
Over a period of days or weeks you can reduce the length of the stick until the bird is no more than a few inches from your hand. At that point, lower the stick in relation to you hand and the parrot will step from the stick to your hand. Continue to speak gently to the bird and coo to it. Raise your hand higher than your elbow so the bird does not walk up your arm to your shoulder at first. Birds on the shoulder are out of your control. Begin to offer the bird small treats from your other hand. It is important that these tidbits be very small. Make all movements very slowly so as not to frighten the pet.
While the bird is still perching on the stick, I begin to take it into the living room, sit on the sofa and turn the television on to a quiet, monotonous channel. The sound of the TV has a calming effect on birds and helps me pass the time as the bird accustoms itself to being on the perch or my hand. I keep other family members away during these initials sessions - particularly unruly children. I will often surreptitiously trap one of its toes between my fingers to keep it still. When the bird is completely relaxed (as indicated by its grooming itself, fluffing up, and pooping) I lower my hand slowly with the bird on it. The parrot will then walk up my arm and onto my shoulder. Make no sudden moves. When your training sessions are over approach the cage, backside first, and the bird will transfer itself from your shoulder to the cage. The sign total success is a content and happy bird that grooms your hair and nibbles at your ear and is willing to almost drift off in relaxation. Some people discourage parrots on the shoulder. A relaxed parrot on my shoulder has never posed a problem for me. You would never want an aggressive bird placed on your shoulder or one that would attack your hand if you tried to remove it. If it won't get off, squat down and it will transfer to a higher object. Height gives confidence to parrots.
Touch and Scratch
Parrots are extremely tactile creatures. Snuggling, mutual grooming (allogrooming) and tongue pleasures are all extremely important to their contentment. Bonded (human-imprinted) parrots quickly become stressed when their owners spend too little time interacting with them in those hardwired activities.
If your pet was raised and imprinted on a human and you obtain the parrot during its formative period, those behaviors will come naturally to it. If it was not allowed to imprint on humans, was wild caught, aviary netted or was neglected during its formative period, those behaviors will take longer to develop and may never fully express themselves. Some would call those birds less loving - others would call them more balanced. A fully relaxed , happy parrot will cock and elevate its head to the side, slightly close its eyes and wait for you to scratch it under the chin. It will turn its head to let you scratch all its “erogenous” areas and may gently nip you when it has had enough. Then it will puff up its feathers, wiggle-shake, and often poop. Nothing is as content and relaxed as a content parrot. You can read about some of the things happy parrots do here.
Increased Options Through Environmental Enrichment
The fewer the behaviors your parrot is allowed, the more intense and exaggerated the remaining ones will become. The richer your parrots life, the less likely it will be to display abnormal behaviors. There are so many good ways to do this - they are limited only by your imagination. Read about them online and in an article here.
Do not let your parrot become a perch potato. Parrots that are inactive suffer from more than obesity and the stress of boredom. Heart disease occurs in parrots. (ref 1, ref 2) There is also a very preliminary study that relates a lack of exercise in parrots to some of the precursor changes to heart disease we see in animals other than birds. You can read that article here.
What About Wearing Gloves ?
I have never had much success using leather or cloth gloves to handle parrots. Within a short time they become terrified and agitated at the very sight of the gloves – particularly if they are dark in color. It is better to use the hand perch until you can use your unprotected hand. An open hand is much more threatening to a parrot than a closed one. So stop the charge of an aggressive parrot with your hand open, but approach a fearful parrot with you hand closed.
Should My Parrot’s Wing Feathers Be Clipped ?
I have always clipped the secondary feathers from the wings of parrots I keep in my home and left them intact in parrots I kept in my outdoor aviaries.
There are two valid reasons for clipping the wings of birds:
1) Parrots that can do no more than flutter to the ground at a 30° angle do not fly into windows or mirrors, land on hot stoves or fall into open toilets. They don not get mangled by ceiling fans or down with the dogs and cats unattended. Parrots that are restricted by their lack of flight to T-stands and cage tops are less likely to chew electrical cords or toxic pot-metal trinkets laying around the house nor do they chew on lead-containing paint or slowly gnaw away at the wood trimmings of your home. They also do not fly out open doors never to be seen again.
2) Aggressive parrots that have had their wings clipped do not dive bomb other family members and are less likely to chase them around the house.
People do not bring parrots to veterinarians because they didn't have these accidents; they bring me the ones that did. So veterinarians like me will probably tell you to clip your parrot’s wings because we see the failures - not the successes. Like lifeguards at the pool, we are always looking to nip accidents before they happen.
But if you are 100% certain that none of the things I mentioned will happen , or if you are content to live with those uncertainties, there are valid reasons not to clip your parrots wings. Flighting a parrot is certainly one way to add variety and security to its life in an attempt to leave unwanted, stereotypic behaviors behind or prevent them from forming in the first place.
Some maladjusted, unhappy parrots - particularly wild caught birds (broncos) - do better when they are imped (foreign feathers inserted up the old feather's cut shafts) and released into a flight with birds of similar temperament. If you do that, be sure that none of the resident birds are nesting or feeding each other. I generally leave the new arrival in a secondary cage to see how the other parrots accept it before allowing the birds to mingle. I also imp parrots that are injuring their keel bone due to crashing onto the floor or cage bottom.
Aggressive parrots quickly realize when their wings have been clipped and they can no longer fly and rule the roost. This often drops the social status of blustery aggressive birds making them more docile and easier to live with.
Many house parrots freak out when they suddenly find themselves airborne out of doors; particularly so when they hear a sudden, startling sound. I have had a client’s macaw do just that, only to land later in the day on the shoulder of a house roofer 32 miles away. Free-flight your parrot in an auditorium or mall before you trust it out-of-doors. Even our parrot/cockatoo bird acts at Sea World would occasionally fly off. Some were never seen again; for others, it took the Park’s fire truck and ladders to get them down from tall trees. (It would be an excellent idea for you to have your free-flight birds identified with a microchip)
How Should I Punish Bad Behavior ?
You shouldn’t .
Punishment and denial of affection doesn’t work with parrots. Parrots are very unlikely to link cause with effect (one thing to the other). They are not reflective and they, like most animals, live in the current moment, the here and now. Ignoring a parrot is a form of punishment. I do not suggest you do that. If you decide that a behavior as attention seeking, perhaps you just have not been giving your parrot enough or the right kind of attention.
How Much Time Should My Parrot Spend In Its Cage ?
Some fearful and maladjusted birds feel more secure if the bars of a cage
separate them from you. For those birds a cage reduces their stress. But
for most parrots, a latched cage door takes away healthy options to occupy
their time and interact with their environment. I generally leave the
cage door ajar so the bird can enter and leave when it pleases. Most parrots
prefer to be on top of their cage, rather than in it.
When you train or interact with your parrot, always begin by trying the least intrusive and most positive methods. Have patience with those methods - success rarely comes quickly. If you will be patient, most birds can be coxed out of their cages with treats. Many will eventually come out on their own if give sufficient time. Fearful parrots that come out of cages on their own accord have taken a great leap toward confronting the things they fear.
But some situations demand other methods, and among those, the use of a bath towel is the least forceful and obtrusive. Towels can be very helpful in protecting both the parrot and its owner from injury.
Some bird behaviorists are firmly, even violently, against the use of towels in any situation. They equate them with straightjackets and forcible restrain of humans. They call the technique “flooding” or overwhelming of the bird’s sensibilities.
These folks do not realize that towels offer a feeling of safety and security to birds – particularly frightened ones. Would a bird that is claustrophobic seek out a dark hole in a tree to nest in? Would a conure that dreads confinement delight in roosting in a paper bag?
Apprehensive parrots like concealment – it is basic to their nature (that is why they are green). Deer, fawns and all vulnerable animals crave concealment .You will find their heart rates drop and they quickly relax - not from helplessness - from relief. I use snuggling and concealment in towels effectively with wild birds (ref), bunnies (ref) opossums (ref) and raccoons (ref). All of us who work with wildlife do. Zoos, and wildlife rehabilitations centers find towels indispensable. That is why we always have a dedicated washing machine for the towels alone.
Parrots are domestically bred; but they are no more domestic animals than those orphan animals I eventually release. There are no published references that I know of regarding parrots and the security of concealment. But you can read one on the phenomenon in other birds here.
First try other suggested techniques you read or hear about to decrease bold aggression in sexually mature parrots. If they work, splendid. If it is a seasonal problem, adjust your lifestyle, not the parrot’s, to deal with it. But when those suggestions fail, do not feel guilty about trying a towel. It is certainly preferable to punishment, treating the problem with injectable and oral medications or simply locking the bird away. We live in the World that God created, not the World we would have wished Him to create.
a maladjusted parrot is tragic for everyone concerned. It is often a parrot
that is most bonded to one family member that is most aggressive to another
family member. That is because the same hormones drive both effects. If
it looses the affection and attention of the family member it craves,
its personality will be profoundly affected. Perhaps it will form a close
bond to its new owner, but perhaps it will develop other behavioral abnormalities.
These are the parrots that get passed from owner to owner, home to home.
Don't let misguided sensibilities and things you read deprive your parrot
of every effort to avoid that ending.
As the pet becomes accustomed to being groomed, you can begin to scratch lower near the corners of its chin and beak where parrots really love to be scratched. The bird may growl when you do this at first, but if it is securely wrapped, it should not be able to bite you. I carry these birds around with me in the house and have them sit with me through a 30-minute television program while securely wrapped up. After doing this every day for a few weeks there will be a profound change in the bird’s personality. If your are successful, it’s bond to a single member of the household (the one it preens) should diminish and it should be less aggressive to the rest of the family. When the parrot is at ease in the towel, begin to unwrap the bird when it is on its back. Continue to stroke the pet as you do this until it is relaxed and trusting in that position.
Getting wet is not a harsh punishment for a parrot – almost all parrots love water. So dangerous unprovoked attacks by aggressive or possessive parrots can often be deterred with a light spray from a child’s squirt gun to divert the bird’s attention. After several diverted attempts the bird may give up trying to approach that person. A gentle spray of water is often enough to breaks their attention long enough to redirects their activities to something more acceptable. People who find water objectionable have forgotten that parrots love the rain.
Seasonal Aggression And Egg Laying
New World parrots, the amazons, conures and macaws, tend to become sexually active in the increased daylight of spring if they are exposed primarily to natural sunlight. (Parrots living at low latitudes (nearer the equator) are thought to key off of the increased sunlight that followes the dimmer light of their cloudy, rainy season.)
When parrots are sexually active they often become intensely territorial and aggressive to all but their mate or the person to whom they have bonded. Birds should never be given nest boxes unless eggs, offspring and the personality and physical changes that accompany them are your desire. If the problem is bad, try the bird in a new cage in a new location. (Remember, parrots are very sensitive to the fumes that are released by overheated teflon-coated pans. If that might occur - do not place them near the kitchen.)
When female parrots do lay eggs, the eggs can be blown out, refilled with wax and left in the cage for them to incubate (18- 29 days depending on the species). If eggs are removed before the parrot looses interest in them, she may lay again and again, eventually depleting her calcium and nutritional stores.
Veterinarians have found that an injection of Depo-Provera (medroxyprogesterone acetate) sometimes ends egg-laying and seasonal aggression in parrots; but this hormone can have a number of undesirable side effects as well.
What Are Some Of The Common Things That Stress Out Parrots And Make Them Behave Badly ?
The things that stress out parrots usually occur together. So it is difficult to sort out the relative contribution of each of them. As an example, it is unusual to see a parrot consuming a terrible sunflower seed-based diet that is not also living in too small a cage that is devoid of enrichment activities.
Parrots in the wild busy themselves during every daylight hour. Searching for food occupies the bulk of their time, exploration, social interactions with their flock mates and bonded activities occupy the rest. Their choices and behaviors vary with the season, in harmony with their internal rhythms.
Many house parrots, on the other hand, pass 10-14 hour days choosing only which perch to stand on. Is it any wonder they pass their hours deciding which of their feathers need a bit extra attention (exaggerated attention) or enlivening their day with screaming ? They lean over for their pelleted, boring food - much like a bag of Chetos that drops down when you drop your money into the automat. The behavioral changes that this sort of life eventually causes are not simply behaviors that can be easily unlearned or erases, repetitive behavior rearranges pathways and circuitry in the brain that , with time, can become permanent.
Poor Diets And Good Diets Fed in Poor Ways
Just as mating and bonding preferences are made early in life, parrots learn their dietary preferences at an early age as well. It is a lot easier for large aviaries to rely on pelleted foods fed in a seed cup than endure the time and expense of preparing a natural, balanced and varied diet fed in inovative ways.
When avian medicine was in its infancy, most psittacines became nutritionally ill because they were feed a straight seed diet. Ted Lafeber noticed and corrected that by marketing the first pelleted parrot diet that was nutritionally balanced. However, he did not envision the psychological problems that consuming a factory-manufactured, monotonous and easily accessible diet would cause. These diets were nutritionally balanced, but they were behaviorally unbalanced in the way he suggested that they be presented. Seed diets and pelleted diets, as they are usually presented to parrots encourage stereotypy. They rob parrots of the important activity of foraging that occupies the majority of their day in the wild. You can read my ideas about parrot diets here.
Loneliness And Solitude
Some humans do well in solitude and self-contemplation – but parrots do not.
A few hours a day of interaction with their owners is not enough to satisfy their innate needs. One sees solitary eagles, finches and herons outside of their breeding and mating season. But one never sees solitary parrots. I spent much of my youth in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains of Tamaulipas - looking up at the parrots in the huge cypress trees along the rivers and the military macaws as they flew past on their way to their feeding grounds. I have never seen a parrot alone in the wild. There were always at least two of them. Parrots are so dependent on that for security and a sense of well-being. Most parrot owners not available to their pets 24 hrs a day.
Grey parrots are particularly gregarious birds. They are also the species most prone to psychological crashes in captivity. In season, they form large communal roosts of thousands of individuals. We know little about how the parrots in these groups interact and probably never will. In September of 2011 a biologist from Johannesburg and an acquaintance of mine, journeyed upstream on the Congo River from Kisangani. Unlike on former trips, he saw not a single African grey parrot, nor had the local population had any success in trapping them. The birds had simply vanished, most likely netted and sold to the bird merchants of Singapore and Bahrain.
Confinement To A Cage
There is considerable individual variation as to how much cage confinement a parrot can tolerate. Placement and activity surrounding the cages is quite important too. But no well-adjusted parrot prefers being caged. If your parrot is hanging on the walls of its cage, it is telling you it wants to be let out.
I “Deprogram” A Parrot From Its Instinctive Behaviors
If you do succeed in modifying instinctive behaviors that you perceive as negative, you will likely be confronted by new behaviors detrimental to your bird’s psychological and physical well being. “Bad” parrot behavior is often “Good” behavior in a bad setting. A parrot will always be a parrot. You have more ability to modify your behavior than your parrot does to modify his. Be prepared to make the majority of compromises.
Are These Problems Physical Health Issues or Psychological Adjustment Issues ? Can Aggression And Other Psychologically-Based Problems Be Treated With Drugs ?
The can be both.
If they are truly based on a physical health issue, your veterinarian may have proven ways to help you. When they are rooted in psychological problems you veterinarian can also treat your pet with medications - although I strongly recommend against it.
I told you that parrots are slaves to their hormones. We veterinarians can tinker with those hormones. We now have a whole class of chemicals, the GnRH agonists, that are sometimes effective in turning hormones of the gonadal-HPA temporarily off. Without those hormones, your bird’s personality may change dramatically. The degree of change depends on the degree that a behavior has past from hormonally-driven to an ingrained circuit-based habit. The most common GnRH compound administered to parrots is probably leuprolide acetate (Lupron). We administered it based on its prolonged activity in mammals (it's primary market is as a treatment for inoperable prostate cancer). However, recent studies in parrots indicate that its effect in birds is much shorter-lived in birds than veterinarians though (2 weeks at the most).You can read some of those studies here and here .
Other veterinarians attempt to put “misbehaving” parrots into the human and domestic animal category of obsessive/compulsive disorders. You can read about one veterinarian that claimed success doing that here; some bird behaviorist agree. (ref)
Making an obsessive/compulsive diagnosis is quite inviting to veterinarians because it gives them the option of using all the human drugs used to fight that problem, (clomipramine, , the other SSRIs, Elavil etc.) These drugs are all psychoactive so, no doubt, they will change your parrots behavior (stupify it). However I do not believe that an obsessive/compulsive disorder underlies bird behavioral problems. You can read some reasons why I don’t here.
Other veterinarians look for unlikely causes, of feather-related problems - things like skin parasites, bacterial or fungal skin infections, or allergies - things quite unlikely in a relatively young, isolated pet on a balanced diet. (It is true that metabolic disturbances such as gout, ovarian disease, tumors etc. are sometimes accompanied by plucking.) You can read how a typical parrot case might be worked up, here.
Might My Parrot Have Skin Allergies Like My Dog and I Do ?
But I find it highly improbable that a large number of parrots, so recently removed from the wild, would develop itch allergies unlike their genetically identical wild brethren. The wild and feral parrots of Florida, Texas and California have exquisite plumage. Any parrot that chews on itself is likely to have microscopic evidence of skin inflammation. So , for the moment, I am more comfortable relying on another study that you can read here.
The blood-sample-based (IgE) allergy tests used in domestic pets and humans may yield the same conflicting an unreliable results in parrots that they do in people and dog. You can read about those results here. ( I understand how frustrated you are about your plucking pet. But I have little faith in allergy-based diagnoses of parrot feather loss and find some of the suggested treatments somewhat bizarre and possibly detrimental to your pet's health - if you decide to pursue them anyway, you can read about those suggestions here)
When parrot owners or veterinarians decide that a parrot is itchy, they are sometimes tempted to use an anti-itch cream or lotion containing corticosteroids. These work well in humans and domestic mammals to control itch. However, they are inappropriate for birds. In birds, these products seem to profoundly suppress the portion of your parrot's immune system that protect it from airborne fungi spores (aspergillus) . Immuno-suppressed parrots are highly susceptible to aspergillosis because of the intricate network of air sacs partitioning their bodies. In these sacs, the fungus can proliferate beyond the reach of the parrot's immune cells responsible for their protection. Many parrots have been exposed to aspergillus and successfully wall of the still-living organisms similar to the way the body fights tuberculosis. But when the birds defenses are weakened by corticosteroid-containing products (or environmental stress that increases their own native corticosteroids), the aspergillus “blooms” killing the bird. You can read how that happened in one case, here.
Fecal And Blood Cortisol and Sex Steroid Levels Assays
Cortisol and related compounds tend to rise in their levels under stress. So your parrot's fecal or blood cortisone levels might yield data as to the amount of stress in its life. Some researches think it does. You can read about that here and here. But many studies find that a parrots blood cortisol hormone levels do not correlate well with the level of those hormones in its stool and that the levels change so quickly as to make a single determination meaningless.
is technically feasible to remove a parrot’s sex hormone-producing
organs, its ovary and testes. when it is done in male chickens, the procedure
is called caponization.
We know that parrots that spend most of their time with their natural parents during their formative period appear to suffer less from misidentifying their owner as their mate. What we do not know is how these “better adjusted” parrots will perform as pets. Will you be satisfied with a parrot that is less likely to nibble at your ear, preen your hair or snuggle close against you? What about your parrot's inclination to talk? Some birds decide what is pleasant to their ear very early in life - perhaps even while within the egg itself. (Ref 1, Ref 2)
The chief reason many parrots talk is because they are so emotionally needy for their bonded companion. They crave constant presence and interaction with their human "mate" and talking is one way they get it. That is probably the engine driving their inclination to copy human speech. If you lessen this bird-to-human bond, it may well affect their inclination to talk. You can read about what drives a grey parrot to talk here. (Perhaps I am overly concerned about that, a Swiss study found that parent-raised grey parrots were only a bit less inclined to talk (fig 7-31) (ref)
Be sure a more "normal" parrot is what you want. The most extensive study I know of on the possible psychological outcomes of parent-raised vs human-raised parrots was conducted in 2005. You can read it here.
And what will happen when that well-adjusted parrot gets ready to bond with another bird and does not find any? Will its frustrations be any less than a human-imprinted parrot that is not allowed to bond with a human? With time, we will know the answers to those question; or selective parrot breeding will make them irrelevant. But for now, I cannot say.
Leaving baby parrots with their parents for a longer period certainly bears consideration as a way to prepare it for a better-adjusted life. It is no cure for a dull life or poor nutrition, but it might help considerably in preventing owner-directed aggression. I downloaded some of the key articles on this subject so you could read about some of the differences that have been observed between human and parrot-imprinted domestically raised parrots. The results are all plausible. But the numbers of birds in most studies are small, the decisions are subjective, preconceived, and the long-term effects remain largely unknown. Ref 1, Ref 2, Ref 3, Ref 4 , Ref 5
I generally pulled my parrot chicks from their nest box upon their first growl at me and finished raising them myself. That was the point when I knew that they knew that I was not one of them. There is another important advantage of letting the parents nanny their offspring longer - if you feed the parents correctly, they are more likely than you to supply the chicks with nutrients in proper balance and quantity. (ref 1, ref 2)
What Should I Look For In Choosing A Parrot ?
Can We Breed For A Parrot That Is Better Adjusted To Living In A Human Home ?
Yes, we have already done that for cockatiels, budgerigars, finches, ferrets dogs and cats and other domestic animals. That is what domestic means - adapted to living tranquilly with man.That is not the way parrots are generally bred now. Unwanted pets, fearful parrots and those culled for their idiosyncrasies are often the ones that end up in breeding facilities. Well-adjusted house parrots are the least likely to end up in breeding aviaries unless a conscious effort is made to include them.
OK, You’ve Sold Me ! Where Can I Buy Your Book Or Pay For A Consultation ?
I treat medical problems in parrots, not behavioral and environmental issues. What I have to offer you is what you have just read - nothing more.
Sometimes there is more than one road to a desired destination. I can only tell you about the things I have done. So do try some of the techniques, like clickers, etc. that you read about online. I would much prefer those things than having your bird drugged, collared or sent away.
Just because I tell you something is unlikely to work is not reason enough not to give it a try - particularly since avian veterinarians like me have, at best, a 60% success rate in curing plucking and “bad-behavior” birds. If your parrot’s life improves with various conditioning and operant techniques you read about, perhaps it is because you are now giving it the attention it craves. Whatever the cause, good results are great however you obtain them. Just try to keep your aspirations reasonable and control your inclination to bend God’s creations to Man’s desires.
If you go down that road, I would suggest contacting Mr. Greg Glendell. We do not entirely agree on the causes of some parrot problems or how they are best solved; but he has put as much thought into the subject as I have and he can guide you through the techniques that he has found effective. Nothing would make me happier than a note from you reporting your success.