Understanding Parrots: Why Parrots Do What They Do
by Sibylle Jonson
"I am so angry with my parrot! ... He (or she) won’t do what we want him to do ... In fact, he seems to do EXACTLY what he is NOT supposed to … is he trying to wind us up?
He is driving us CRAZY!"
Does that sound familiar to you? My feeling is that it does. Once we understand why our feathered friends do what they do, we are less likely to be angry with them and are able to build a relationship together from which both benefit (you and your pet).
First of all – parrots are not dogs.
In the wild, groups of dogs have their “top dogs,” and the “under dogs” generally understand that. The occasional “fight” might break out to establish dominance, but once the top dog wins, the “under dog” is submissive and the “top dog” leads the group (until another dog wins the “war of dominance”).
Through training, we humans establish a dominant relationship over the dog. Unless they lose respect of us (feel they are superior and should be “top dog”), they will try to please us. They will roll over, sit, fetch – whatever they understand you want them to do – just to keep you happy and be in your good graces. Such submissiveness is not typical parrot behavior ...
Parrots have different relationships in the wild. They generally form very close relationship bonds that are far deeper than our own. Parrots are strictly monogamous. Rarely, some “reshuffling” happens, if they find that their current relationship doesn’t “yield” any young. If they lose their partner for whatever reason (death, capturing, etc.), they will also seek another mate. But other than those situations, they generally mate for life. A pet parrot will usually find his "mate' amongst the people he lives with for whom he will display typical bonding behavior. This may entail regurgitating food for them; crouching down and flaring the wings, while making funny noises - which is basically an invitation for you to mate with them. For all intends of purposes -- this is his or her chosen mate. Of course, this will also cause problems in some house - as they tend jealously "guard" their chosen mate from competitors -- like spouses and other mates! :"Dive-bombing" competitors is quite typical. Bringing in another bird into a home if you already have a bird that is bonded with you -- is also likely to cause jealousy aggression. As far as your parrot is concerned -- you are his (or her) mate and your loyalty is expected.
As far as they are concerned, we belong to their flock and are on equal footings. They won’t try to please us (except for offering us half-digested food!); and generally only do what they themselves want to do. In the wild, pairs will feed each other as a sign of bonding, but also this is caused by the basic need that one partner has to provide food to the mate that is incubating eggs or is keeping the nestlings warm and can't get off the nest to feed themselves without endangering the chicks... Everything they do is driven by basic natural instincts...
If there is any behavior your pet displays, that you don't like - all we can do is eliminate the possibility of this occurring, provide alternatives and encourage (reward) desirable behavior ...
In the wild, parrots fly from tree to tree, chew on branches and plant matter. While doing so, they likely derive some nutrition benefits, this will keep their beaks trimmed, and they may at the same time “personalize” their nesting / home site - akin to us decorating / personalizing our own homes. In between chewing, they may preen themselves or their mate, forage for food, call out to communicate with their mates – if they get bored, they are likely to look around to see what is worth exploring.
Parrots in our homes will do all of the above. This behavior is innate. You can’t change it. This is how they are. Those who don’t understand this behavior, get angry at their parrot for doing … well, for doing what comes naturally. We may shout at them, maybe even throw stuff at them (hopefully nothing that could hurt them!) ; or we may punish them by keeping them locked up. But in reality – they didn’t do anything wrong. This is how they are.
Okay, that doesn’t solve anything … does it. How can I prevent him from destroying the home?
The answer is to bird proof the home.
- Cover or remove items that your parrot wants to chew on or may otherwise soil (the back of chairs, the top of furniture, for example). We placed towels or blankets on chairs and other "perches" our parrot has chosen to spend time on during the day. Those towels get put into the wash when soiled and that resolves the problem of chairs being covered in droppings; plus it saves the items from being damaged by the parrot's beaks. (Note: the bigger the parrot, the thicker the covering needs to be to prevent damage from busy beaks.)
- Electric wires / cables are huge attractants for them and we get so upset that they chew on them (knowing that this is dangerous for the parrot, plus a fire hazard). However, they don’t understand the danger associated with doing so. As far as they are concerned, this is something interesting for them to explore and exercise their beaks on. We save ourselves the frustration of having to constantly watch them and “save them” by hiding electric wiring or covering it up. Covers are available in some places. We ourselves didn’t find it when we needed it, so we got clear plastic tubing at Home Depot (plumbing department), cut a slit into it and covered any electric wiring (for example on our hanging lamps) with this. It doesn’t look bad, since it is clear – and it does the job of protecting the wiring.
- Now that you understand their need to chew – PROVIDE ALTERNATIVES! Create bird areas in different parts of the areas he usually spends time in; provide lots of toys and opportunities for foraging. (My parrot LOVES boxes, for example, take some crumpled paper and hide treats and small toys in – and he will be busy for hours …) He likes to go into the boxes and then talk. He obviously loves how different his voice sounds while in the box … This always makes us laugh. Now, when he is in the box he will first talk and then laugh, which keeps us all in stitches.
Yes, there are lots of upsides to bird ownership -- the laughs we get out of it are an important one. The loyalty and love we get from them is the other ... On the other hand, there are the messes, destruction and noise ... It's all a trade-off ...
Provide bird-safe play areas around the home
We bought acrylic panels at Home Depot (our favorite place) and covered the top of cabinets with them – and places toys and boxes on there … Make-shift “bird areas” are the best and cheap to boot. For strong chewers, natural tree branches will give them an alternative to chewing on furniture (hopefully). Because parrots will do what they want to do – all we can do is provide opportunities for them to do what they are designed to do by nature – chew, play and be messy, which takes us to the next point …
By nature, birds will drop food to the floor. In the wild, there are huge ecological benefits for them to do so.
Some plants heavily rely on birds to disperse their seeds so that new plants can grow away from the parent plant. If it weren't for the seed dispersal by birds and some mammals, new plants would grow so close to the parent plant that, eventually, there wouldn't be any space for the root systems to expand. The plants would not be able to survive. Birds carry seeds away and drop them in other areas, where there is plenty of space for the seeds to grow into trees or bushes. This will also benefit the birds as they will have more plants to feed on in the future in the area, they reside in.
I was hoping that one day my parrots would understand that no tree will ever grow out of the dropped food -- but that is wishful thinking. It "ain't" going to happen!
So next time when you see them do that, understand that this behavior is innate. You really can’t change that. Look at the bright side – you will benefit from the exercise associated with cleaning up after them. However, you can make the clean-up easier by putting the feeding dishes in an area that is easy to clean. Lately, there have been developed bird feeders that also make it more difficult for birds to drop foods to the floor, like the Tidy Seed Bird Feeder. But that is just all one can do about it.
Potty training: I am generally not in favor of potty training; particularly if done to the extreme (pooping only on command when outside the cage). It is simply not healthy for birds to stop themselves from defecating. Training birds to "hold it in" can lead to serious health problems, such as cloacal prolapse, as the feces builds up inside the digestive system and puts pressure on the internal organs as the droppings build up inside. Occasionally, a bird may incur life-threatening kidney damage waiting for that verbal command. One known death as a result has been documented. God knows how many people never realized why their pet bird died. It is a dangerous practice.
However, what does work is identify the areas your parrot usually likes to poop and place newspaper (or packaging paper / newsprint) underneath it. It is simple enough to remove it when soiled. Bird owners get to know their pets. For example, I know that as soon as I let my pet bird out in the morning, he will do his "big" business. So, I hold him over a trash can; he does what he needs to do (usually within seconds) and then I let him go wherever he wants.. We also get to know the signs of a pet bird preparing to poop (they will crouch down, for example). When a bird owner sees that, they quickly hold the pet bird over a trash can (for example) and the pet bird will relieve himself without making a mess.
It is also possible to train parrots to poop in a designated area - via positive reinforcement (rewarding desired behavior). Alternative solutions are the shoulder cape (or towel over your shoulder) - to protect your clothes.
Parrots are loud
They use their voices to communicate with their flock. You can teach some of them to talk in a human voice, and if you do that, they are less likely to annoy you when voicing – but again that is ALL you can do. Whispering when they are calling, may also prompt them to stop, as they are trying to hear your voice ... Some talking parrots that don't have other birds around often end up using talking as their primary way of communicating. Our African Grey doesn't know what other African Greys sound like -- I don't remember when he spoke "African Grey" the last time. He usually talks in our voices words that he hears a lot, or he meows (yes, we have a cat).
Shouting at them when they are noisy will only make things worse – because now you are TRAINING them to be noisy. They are happy about any attention – even bad one. Anything is better than being ignored - in their point of view. So your shouting, waving your arms around – your face turning red in anger. Hey, as far as most parrots are concerned, this is a great show! The more sensitive parrots are likely to feel threatened and terrified -- and are likely to develop behavioral problems (including biting, feather plucking, phobias, excessive screaming, etc.) as a result. Whatever the effect is, it won’t be the intended one.
Can I teach my birds tricks?
Yes, you can and many do – but, unlike dogs who learn things because they want to please their masters, birds only learn what they want to - either because their human teacher makes it fun or they know it is followed up with a reward. This could be a treat or some affectionate moments with their owner – the personality of parrots differ and what motivates one, may not motivate the other. Mind you favorite treats will ALWAYS do the trick.
So next time you get angry at your pet -- think how you can avoid this situation from reoccurring -- this usually entails:
- Remove items that you don't want your parrot to play with (destroy) - or that are not safe for your pet (please refer to "bird proofing your home.)"
- Accept that some items will be chewed on (unless you cover them up or remove them). Some repairs / restorations will have to be made in our house when we move out -- but that is something we have already accepted as part of parrot ownership.
- Provide fun bird areas throughout the house that he will want to spend time on -- with lots of toys ... Place them in areas you noticed your parrot likes to spend his time -- or else, he will simply choose his own "bird area" - which could a couch or cabinet.
- If your parrot lands on something that you don't want him to - see if there is a reason why he does that. For example, our African Grey would perch on one particular lamp that gave him a perfect view to the guest corridor -- so that he could "keep an eye" on those strangers. He would only do that when we were having visitors. He would otherwise never land on that lamp. So we placed a movable perch there (moving it even closer to the corridor, so that he could have an even better view of what was going on there), and made this his "good boy" perch. Whenever he landed on it, we would say" Good Boooooy", lavishly praise him and give him a treat. He now likes to go on there instead. Alternatively, place something there that scares him -- some "bird repellants" may do the trick. But that usually only works for a while. Those birds are smart. They eventually figure it out ...
Develop a Relationship
As you get to know your pet parrot, you will also be able to anticipate problems and once you do that, you can find the solution, which may entail removing or rearranging furniture, or placing a thick blanket over heavy items that your pet may like to sit and chew on.
Over time those committed to their pet birds will work out the "kinks" and will be able to enjoy their pet parrots for the incredible beings they truly are ...
When not to get a pet parrot
The biggest and probably insurmountable problem occurs if not all family members are committed to this new family member. Their constant shouting: "Shut that darn bird up!" will only make the situation worse for all - including for the bird.
They will get upset about the changes necessary to keep the parrot and all your valuables safe. This will put stress on the parrot-loving person who wanted a parrot to begin with. Eventually, they will get disillusioned and may even hold the negative atmosphere against the pet parrot, resulting in neglect and potentially even abuse.
In the end, it's the parrot that suffers as he or she is likely to develop serious behavioral issues and ends up unwanted by everyone, including its previously so enthusiastic owners.
That's why it is so important -- EVERYBODY in the household has to want this pet and has to be committed to making any changes to the home that are necessary to reduce conflict and keep the pet bird safe.
If not everybody is on-board, please don't bring a parrot into your home, but enjoy them in their natural habitat or when visiting zoos.
Those of us who are extremely "house-proud" - with carefully selected valuable furnishings, fabrics, art work, etc., - would not be happy about the abuse the household items will undoubtedly go through when a pet parrot is around (the larger the parrot - the more damage they will do).
It is possible to keep the birds in a designated room, maybe a sunroom or outside enclosure. But if this isn't possible, and you are very concerned about damage to your household furnishings / items, a parrot may not be the right pet for you.
As part of this journey: Next time you are angry -- understand that the solution lies with you -- not with your pet parrot.
By Sibylle Johnson from Avianweb
Do you have any comments or ideas how to resolve conflicts with our pet birds, please e-mail them for publication ... Thanks!
If you are STILL considering parrots as pets, please visit the following websites for information:
- How Parrots Learn to Behave By Phoebe Greene Linden, SBBF, California and S.G. Friedman, Ph.D., Utah State University
- Procuring your Parrot
- Housing Your Bird
- Training Your Bird
- Bird Nutrition
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