An extremely common cause of parrot behavior problems is the owner, and owner problems manifest in a plethora of ways. Often, owners have unrealistic expectations about parrot ownership. Since most purchases are made on impulse, these people did no research and have no realistic conception of what a parrot is… and is not. Parrots are genetically wild animals, whether born in captivity or not. They have no conception of being “owned” or a “pet.”
Most humans are accustomed to dogs and assume all other animals see people as dogs do. Dogs perceive humans to be superior, god-like beings who are the center of the universe – which agrees with most of humanity’s perspective. However, as far as the author is concerned, this is an opinion shared only by dogs and humans. Parrots certainly do not view humans in that manner, and this can be quite a shock to many people.
A parrot is a loud, boisterous, highly intelligent and social creature with a talent for destruction and a gift for making huge messes. A parrot is NOT a little person with feathers, a dog with feathers or a surrogate child. Often owners have serious misconceptions of a parrot's normal behavior. An important question to ask is, ”Whose problem is it?” Many psittacine behaviors are normal for parrots and therefore are not the parrot's problem at all. For example, chewing is a normal parrot occupation. It is the owner who perceives the bird’s chewing as a problem; therefore, the parrot’s chewing is the owner's problem, not the bird’s.
Other owner issues can include those who have difficult relationships with other humans, such as marital problems. Hostility is hardly veiled when an owner smirks while proudly stating something like, “I’m the only one who can touch my parrot – he hates my husband!” I vividly recall one young woman who claimed her cockatoo was extremely well behaved. However, when other family members were questioned, they revealed they were routinely chased, attacked and badly bitten by this “well behaved” creature. One must assume this owner has difficulties with repressed hostility. In this situation, the parrot is definitely getting rewarded for its aggression and there is little an outsider can do to alleviate this problem. The owner must want aberrant behavior corrected, or nothing will change.
An extremely common source of psittacine behavior problems is a lack of control by the owners. They set no behavioral guidelines for baby parrots, allowing the birds to do anything they please. Then these same people get rid of their parrots as they mature because the bird isn’t a good pet. Yet, it is a fundamental concept that a parrot – or any other companion animal – will not know how to be a good pet unless it is taught how to be a good pet.
When behavior problems develop with parrots, it is perhaps human nature that many people are concerned only with fixing the symptoms of a problem, without addressing the actual underlying cause, which is often a lack of control by the owners. Addressing only symptoms fixes nothing, as medicine well knows. Deadening the itch solves nothing long-term – true resolution requires curing the rash.
One aside regarding control: Contrary to some popular interpretations, the word ‘control’ does not connote force or aggression on the part of the human. The use of positive reinforcement is the ideal training approach and it works beautifully with baby parrots. It can be extremely effective with older parrots as well, but the author believes that other approaches are also viable with individual psittacines, as she has never found a single approach that works on every animal. As a result, she prefers to have a variety of approaches in her training repertoire, rather than depending on only one training method. It should also be noted that, contrary to popular perceptions, the word “dominate” does not automatically connote the use of aggression.
BASIC TRAINING – Curing the Rash, Not Deadening the Itch
No matter what the behavior problem, true resolution requires that humans establish themselves in a position of benevolent control first. Once in that position, they can then make the adjustments necessary to resolve or decrease the occurrence of a negative behavior. Changing a parrot’s actions virtually always requires a correlative change in the behavior of the human. Successful behavior modification, therefore, requires the cooperative effort of all the people involved with the parrot.
From the author’s experience, the easiest way to increase the humans’ rank in the bird’s eyes is for the human to assume a major decision-making role. For example, the bird should not be allowed to make such important decisions as whether or not to get off the human’s shoulder, or whether or not it will return to its cage when the owner has to leave for work. Using the techniques of Sally Blanchard’s nurturing guidance 9, the owner teaches the bird to politely step on and off of the human hand on the commands of ‘Up’ and ‘Down.’ The bird is patterned to respond to these commands during short, upbeat daily lessons that happen in ‘neutral territory’ – out of sight of any area in the environment that the bird considers to be under its dominion.
The neutrality of the training location is critical to the success of the behavior modification training, especially with aggressive parrots. It is a rare parrot that will bite their human in truly neutral territory. Parrots are prey animals, and it is illogical that they would chose to alienate the only familiar being when placed in a completely unfamiliar surroundings. This explains why the terrors of the veterinary exam room can transform a normally homicidal psittacine into a sweetly gentle bird with the owner – at least temporarily.
Working in neutral territory, owners teach their parrots flawless responses to the commands, rewarding the birds lavishly with smiles, praise, petting (if the bird likes to be petted) and treats, whenever the bird performs correctly. Once the training is accomplished, the owner can start adjusting the parrot’s behaviors that have become problematic. Once again, this training is not a step that can be circumvented. e