Parrot Behavior Management - Part #1
BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS AND THE FUTURE OF COMPANION PARROTS
Liz Wilson, CVT. CPBC
Because of the increasing incidences of behavior problems in companion parrots, many birds are losing their homes. Behavior problems manifest in a variety of ways. Over-bonded “one person birds” won’t allow interaction with anyone other than their favorite – even refusing the attentions of other family members. Over-dependent psittacines are unable to amuse themselves, requiring constant attention from their human caretakers. In complete control of their diet, food-rigid parrots are living on abysmal nutritional planes, eating only such things as junk food, corn and grapes. Sensitive adolescent parrots abruptly become neurotically terrified (a.k.a. “phobic”), often overnight – responding to their formerly beloved and trusted owners as if to deadly predators. Feather destructive birds (a.k.a. “feather pluckers”) drive owners to distraction and can make themselves look like something that should be cooked for dinner. Tissue-damaging self-mutilating parrots appear to be attempting suicide. Previously gentle parrots abruptly won’t allow owners access to their cages, so that reaching into the cage to feed entails serious personal risk. Biting and screaming are probably the most common complaints heard about companion birds; biting parrots terrorize families, attacking without any provocation that the humans can recognize. Screamers are getting owners threatened with evictions and/or divorces.
Despite all this, parrot ownership is still increasing and consequently, so are the numbers of parrots that are losing their homes and ending up in adoption and rescue organizations. It is important to understand that these aberrant behaviors can – at least to some degree – be modified. Education is the key to lessening these dilemmas.
BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS – GENERAL ETIOLOGIES
There are several reasons why behavior problems develop with companion parrots, and these must be addressed or no long-term resolution will be possible. Stopgap measures, or what behavior consultants call “quick fixes,” do nothing to resolve the source of the problem, so they generally only postpone the inevitable result of the bird losing its home. What must be sought is a resolution of the problem, not a Band-aide. Consequently, the author will address possible causes for common behavior problems in companion parrots.
Physical or Management Etiologies
When the parrot does not have everything it needs for a happy, healthy life in captivity, problems will result. For example, when the author’s own macaw had an annoying screaming episode a few years ago, investigation revealed (to the author’s embarrassment) that the parrot had knocked down her pellet bowl and was without food. Besides inadequate diet (and malnutrition is still a serious problem with companion parrots), other management problems that impact behavior include: cage issues related to size, location, height and monotony [as in, boredom] and sleep deprivation.
Cage Size: Overly small caging is extremely common. One client kept her Moluccan cockatoo in a 20” X 20” cage, and could not understand why the bird was feather destructive. Part of a bird’s medical history should include the brand and measurements of the bird’s cage. The author believes that birds should be housed in the largest possible cage with safe bar spacing, and feels that the absolute minimum cage size – depending on species – should be two to three times the bird’s wingspan in width, depth, and height from the highest perch.
Cage Location: Depending on individual personality, cage location can be critical. If the bird is gregarious, being caged in a room by itself often results in excessive screaming, as the bird calls repeatedly for the rest of its flock. Nervous, high-strung parrots may become feather destructive and/or biters if caged in the middle of a high traffic area, especially if the cage shares a wall with a door. If so, the bird is constantly startled by people appearing without warning. Cage location is also an important factor with many screamers, especially if the bird’s cage is against a window. With this type of placement, the bird has a full 360 ° view in which to watch for predators, and can therefore become hyper vigilant. In some cases, relief can be virtually instantaneous if a hiding place is provided in the cage, or the cage is moved, at least partially, against a solid wall.
Cage Height: There is a definite correlation between altitude and attitude with captive parrots. Consequently, if a bird has an aggressive personality, this can be exacerbated if the cage allows it to sit above the human eye level in its environment. Previously erroneously called “height dominance,” this behavior is still not fully understood. This author’s theory is that these birds are simply poorly trained. Increased height allows psittacines to move out of reach, making the lack of proper training much more obvious. This is especially problematic with the so-called “cage-top play gyms” marketed with various types of cages. People don’t want to give up their own living space, so tall, narrow cages and cage-top play areas are popular. Ironically, they can also contribute to home-threatening behaviors. If too high is potentially problematic with parrot behavior, so also is the opposite. A nervous, high-strung and/or terrified bird’s condition can be worsened if its cage placement is too low. The author also emphatically disapproves of the old technique of placing an aggressive parrot’s cage on the floor, since being trapped on the ground must be terrorizing to prey animals like psittacines.
Height and Shouldering: As an addendum to the issue of so-called “height dominance”, a common practice that can be especially dangerous is the ancient fashion of allowing parrots on shoulders. A popular custom over centuries of parrot ownership, this practice probably didn’t become particularly hazardous until the advent of domestic-bred parrots. Wild caught parrots have a fundamental respect for humans as predators, whereas domestics have no such regard. As a result, this author feels domestics are capable of much greater violence towards people. Hence, allowing parrots – especially adolescents – to shoulder is particularly dangerous. Shouldering parrots places the birds within easy access of extremely vulnerable [and valuable] parts of the owner's anatomy (eyes, ears, noses, lips, etc.), which can then be subject to severe damage from the parrot's beak. This type of injury can permanently harm not only the human anatomy, but also the parrot-human bond. Damage can occur even if the bird didn’t intend to bite but was startled into grabbing onto something to keep from falling. Knowing the parrot meant no malice does not decrease healing time. The problem is exacerbated by the human’s inability to see the body language that could warn him/her of impending trouble. (See a further discussion of body language under the heading of “Biting.”) The subject of shouldering and parrots is probably the only issue on which all experienced parrot behavior consultants agree.
Boredom: Just as boredom is a major source of behavior problems in adolescent humans, it is a major factor for many companion parrots. Home alone for hours while owners work, many parrots are expected to just sit there. Dr. James Harris described the wild parrot’s waking hours as being divided into quarters: one quarter of the day is spent interacting with one’s mate and/or other flock members; two quarters are spent locating, procuring and eating food; one quarter is spent grooming.The average companion parrot in this country is alone all day, has few/no interesting toys and has a food cup under its nose. No wonder that many birds get into aberrant behaviors such as feather destruction and excessive screaming. After all, what else is there to do?
Ideally, parrots should be allowed relatively small numbers of stimulating toys, rotated on a weekly basis to keep life interesting. Debbie Foushee described 4 categories of parrot toys: chew toys, climbing toys, foot toys and puzzle toys.One toy from each category will satisfy most parrots’ need to play, investigate and destroy, also leaving the psittacine room to move around its cage. Food can be offered in new and challenging ways, such as stuffing an empty tissue box with greens, or hiding a nut within view but not easy reach inside a puzzle toy.7 These are extremely intelligent animals and intelligent animals need challenges in their lives. So parrot owners need to spend time figuring out ways to keep their birds occupied, especially during the long hours alone.
Sleep Deprivation: Since many pet psittacine species are equatorial birds, they would be getting 10-12 hours of darkness in the wild, year-round. As is the case with people, sleep deprivation can be the origin for many forms of behavior problems in companion parrots. The author recommends a minimum of 8 hours of sleep a night for adult parrots, and 10-12 is better. Those hours are counted from the time area is dark and all humans exit the vicinity of the bird’s cage, until dawn the next day or the first person in the house awakens and starts to move around – whichever comes first.
Incidentally, according to those who have been there, the jungle is far from quiet at night. What seems important to a parrot’s sleep is the absence of predators (i.e., humans) moving around in its sleeping space. So having a totally silent house is not as important as staying out of the room in which a bird is sleeping.